Woke up this morning, watched myself a film.
Yes, 14 years after HBO’s groundbreaking drama series “The Sopranos” aired its final episode — controversial to this day — its movie prequel “The Many Saints of Newark” premiered Wednesday in New York.
Fans packed every seat of the Beacon Theatre, and the dress code was “business.” Some ticketholders interpreted that as Tony Soprano-style tracksuits. They must’ve thought the invite said “family business.”
Running time: 120 minutes. Rated R (strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity.) In theaters and on HBO Max Oct. 1.
Before the movie started, there was intensely moving applause for the late James Gandolfini, who died in 2013, and his 22-year-old son Michael, who’s taken the reins from his pop and is now playing young Tony Soprano.
A man up in the balcony screamed at Michael onstage, “We loved your dad!”
By the time the credits rolled, we loved his son, too.
“Many Saints of Newark,” written by genius “Sopranos” creator David Chase and directed by series stalwart Alan Taylor, had a tall order. The film needed to complement what even a Himalayan hermit could tell you was the show that changed television forever. It does. And in abandoning the tube for the big screen, the movie had to compete with mafia classics such as “Goodfellas” and “The Godfather.” Sorry, it’s just not on that same level. “Many Saints” plays like solid TV.
Nonetheless, the tale of how Tony Soprano’s early life led him to become the capo of the DiMeo crime family in New Jersey is smart, entertaining and brutal. Signature Chase. His blend of humor, terror, psychological complexity and oddly compelling domestic chores is alive and well here. Many characters, however, are only alive for a brief period of time.
The blood-soaked movie starts during the Newark race riots of 1967 and mostly follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), the father of Christopher (Michael Imperioli narrates a bit) and favorite uncle of Tony (first William Ludwig then Gandolfini), as his city and the mafia are dragged kicking and shooting into the modern world.
He’s part of a new generation poised to take over, along with Corrado “Junior” (Corey Stoll) and Johnny Soprano (Jon Bernthal). They clash with Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), a black gangster who works for Dickie but has his own grander aspirations. The best of the lot, though, is Ray Liotta as Dickie’s father Aldo. He is absolutely hysterical. Reprehensible, but hysterical.
The same is true of Vera Farmiga, who expertly plays Tony’s kvetching mother Livia. It’s fascinating, if you know the show, to watch the power hungry Livia and Junior interact with a growing Tony.
Unlike what you’d assume, Tony isn’t the main event. He’s more of a wide-eyed observer — aware of what the eccentric men in his family are up to but naive to the grisly details. He adores Dickie, not knowing that he’s a murdering racist with a mistress on the side. Obviously this guy rubbed off on Tony.
Gandolfini, though, nails the most important aspect of his dad’s iconic role — the shy sensitivity. In his therapy sessions on the show we learned there was more to this mafioso than a gun and a greasy white tank top. “Many Saints” adds layers upon layers to that. There is a moment in which the young Gandolfini proves his gravitas when we sense that a kid who could’ve taken a very different path — artist, writer, scientist — chooses a life of crime instead. The audience deservedly applauds it, if not the entire movie.
When you make a film out of the greatest TV show of all time, there’s bound to be a hint of disappointment. What you’re getting here is a very enjoyable mob movie that can be appreciated by anybody, but will undoubtedly be preferred by “Sopranos” fans. “The Godfather IV,” it ain’t.
No matter your nitpicks, though, you can sleep well knowing that “Many Saints of Newark” does not end with the song “Don’t Stop Believin’.”