September 24, 2021

When David Chase revolutionised television in the late 1990s, he was sick of television. A frustrated fifty-something veteran of an industry where writers were rarely mistaken for auteurs, he wanted most of all to make the kind of character-driven, grown-up, mid-budget movies that Hollywood still believed in. Even after he’d shot the pilot for a drama about a tormented New Jersey mobster in therapy, Chase hoped that HBO would turn it down so that he could expand it into a feature film. Instead they said yes, and the golden age of what we now call “prestige TV” began, on 10 January 1999, with the first episode of The Sopranos.

It would be an exaggeration to say that The Sopranos whacked the kind of movies Chase loved, but it certainly helped to put television and cinema on a more equal footing. As Hollywood gave up on the once-fertile territory between blockbusters and low-budget indies, viewers found that their appetite for sophisticated storytelling could be met by the likes of HBO, AMC and, later, Netflix. Today, The Sopranos’ successors dominate the cultural conversation and provide safe harbour for fugitive movie stars and directors who are tired of scratching around for movie financing.

The days when the inner conflict of a dangerous man was sure-fire Emmy material may be over, but The Sopranos remains the Beatles of prestige TV: it was the first and, in many people’s eyes, it is still the best. In 2019, the Guardian crowned it the greatest show of the 21st century so far, ahead of The Wire and Mad Men. A soup-to-nuts Sopranos rewatch became a popular lockdown activity among a certain constituency, who revelled in the skewed black comedy, eccentric detours and endless subtleties. Talking Sopranos, a nicely timed hit podcast by former cast members Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa, has led to a book deal for an oral history. If there hasn’t been a backlash yet, there never will be.

Yet even in 2010, three years after The Sopranos’ fearless cut-to-black finale, Chase was still conflicted about his role as the godfather of prestige TV. “Look, I do not care about television,” he told Brett Martin, author of Difficult Men. “I don’t care about where television is going or anything else about it. I’m a man who wanted to make movies. Period.”

Eventually he did make one, but his rock’n’roll coming-of-age-story Not Fade Away suffered the fate of many serious mid-budget movies. Released in 2012, it earned just $600,000 from a $20m budget. I’m sure that Chase sincerely wanted to make a Sopranos prequel (now 76, he doesn’t do things he doesn’t want to do) but I suspect that his latest project was also his last shot at the big screen. Thus The Many Saints of Newark, released this week, finds him leveraging his phenomenal success in a medium he doesn’t respect to get him back into one that he reveres. As Alessandro Nivola, who stars as dapper capo Dickie Moltisanti, recently told Rolling Stone: “For a movie like this to be made at all was an anomaly, and it was only being made because [of] the IP of the show, the brand of the show.”

Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner offer fan service to a fault. As the movie begins in 1967, most of the cast have the tricky task of embodying unfinished iterations of some of the most memorable characters in modern television, with mixed results. Corey Stoll is deftly hilarious as Tony Soprano’s uncle Junior, a tetchy, charmless sub’s-bench gangster desperate for a level of respect that he is incapable of earning, but John Magaro gives a sketch-show impersonation of Steve Van Zandt’s Silvio Dante, with his tonsorial slapstick and perpetual fuhgeddaboudit grimace. Michael Gandolfini excels at the emotionally gruelling job of playing the younger version of his late father James. He has the same melancholy weight, that physical unhappiness, and the sense of someone caught reluctantly, but not reluctantly enough, in the tractor beam of familial violence.

This embryonic rogues’ gallery revolves around the most important new character introduced by the prequel, Nivola’s Dickie, the doomed father of serial fuck-up Christopher Moltisanti. He foreshadows Tony’s agonies of leadership far more than Tony’s own father, played by Jon Bernthal as a dim, swaggering thug. By comparison, Dickie is a Shakespearean figure whose attempts at operating by a moral code (well, by Mafia standards) are ruptured by uncontrollable outbursts of violence and poisoned by guilt.

Casting Goodfellas’ Ray Liotta as Dickie’s monstrous father, whose laboured grunts through the bedroom wall are somehow the most disturbing sound in a film that also features a hideous bit of freelance dentistry, is much more than a mob-movie in-joke — but it adds a layer of irony, given that the Mafia depicted here is pre-postmodern. The mobsters in the TV show were shaped by seeing themselves on screen, as if performing a wise-guy routine for an invisible audience. Would they have behaved in quite the same way before The Godfather? Tony has a famous line in the pilot episode — “Lately, I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over” — which suggests that he grew up in the glory days; now those glory days are on the big screen, but the only thing more glamorous about them is the wardrobe. There’s already the stink of decay.

What’s genuinely new for a franchise that previously confined people of colour to supporting roles is the introduction of Newark’s black population, specifically Dickie’s runner-turned-rival Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.). The movie uses the famous riots of 1967 both to cover up a crime and to spur Harold into demanding more than scraps from the table. Once it snaps into the 1970s, we see how the growth of radical black consciousness filtered into organised crime and glimpse the white flight that turned the Sopranos into suburbanites, although there’s a sub-plot for Harold which unpleasantly plays into the Mafia’s racist paranoia.

This conflict between the declining Italians and insurgent black gangsters invites unflattering comparisons to Fargo’s similarly themed fourth season, which has enough time to give both sides of that war equal attention, and much more besides. Harold’s transformation relies on clumsy shorthand (ballooning afros, a Last Poets concert) in lieu of scenes that might have given him real depth and agency. He is less a person than a symbol of the social change that the Moltisanti/Soprano empire can’t even understand, let alone halt, and his arc is wrapped up in a mid-credits sting which feels like a mildly insulting afterthought. Vera Farmiga as Livia, Tony’s mother and master of mindfuckery, also smoulders with untapped potential.

I have no bias towards television. Some potentially great movies have been fattened into slow-moving miniseries solely because that’s where the money is. But it’s hard to watch The Many Saints of Newark, entertaining though it is, without wondering why it needed to be a movie. Solidly directed by Alan Taylor, whose spotty CV ranges from some of the best Sopranos episodes to the absolute worst Marvel movie (Thor: The Dark World), it’s neither as strange and grubby as the TV show nor particularly cinematic. With its ensemble cast and myriad sub-plots, this is a narrative that could have done a lot more with six hours (at least) than with two, and ends with Dickie’s story concluded but the adolescent Tony’s just beginning. Had it come out as a stand-alone movie in 1997, we wouldn’t be wondering about these alternatives, but our viewing metabolism has changed, and it was The Sopranos that changed it. Like Tony, Dickie and Harold, we want more.

“Someone once said that movies are a cathedral, and I do still feel that,” Chase told Brett Martin. “A cathedral is big. It’s epic. It’s intense.” It’s almost tragic that Chase made a watershed TV show that was as big, epic and intense as any movie and then refused to accept it. Now he’s made a movie that feels smaller in every way. I want to tell him that he built his cathedral years ago.

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