“The Many Saints of Newark” is a prequel to the well-loved television series “The Sopranos.” We could justifiably expect to learn all about the early years that shaped young Anthony Soprano, played in his youth by Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini. The elementary-school-aged Tony is played by William Ludwig, who is also good in the role.
The Big Come-on in this David Chase-directed drama is that the biological son of James Gandolfini—Michael Gandolfini—-a young actor with 10 professional credits who played Joey Dwyer on “The Deuce” in 2017—is going to provide the Gandolfini vibe, in the same way that Liza Minelli’s channeled her mother, Judy Garland.
There is a resemblance in Gandolfini’s eyes, although they are far from “dead ringers” for each other, as Cindy Crawford’s daughter Kaia Gerber is for her famous model Mom in the new “American Horror Story” series.
Writer/Director David Chase has commented on the Gandolfini eyes: [on James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano] “His (Gandolfini’s) eyes are very expressive. There’s something about him that’s very caring, which you see in him no matter what he’s doing. There’s a sadness there. As cynical, bullying, vulgar and overbearing as he could be, there’s still a little boy in there. He did a lot of mean things, and he enjoyed vengeance, but he didn’t seem mean. Somewhere he believed that people are good. There were some roads he was not going to go down, because there was no coming back.”
So we were all drawn to this prequel to “The Sopranos” to see if the Gandolfini “eyes” have it. They do, but we don’t get to see as much of young Tony Soprano’s eyes as we do of the other stock characters that we remember from the television series. And some of them—since Silvio and Big Pussy and the boys are played by other actors here—are not that recognizable. Nancy Marchand, who played Livia Soprano, has now shuffled off to that theater in the sky and has been replaced here by Vera Farmiga, who does a great job as the reincarnation of David Chase’s real mother, Norma, whom he described as “abusive.”
Chase has been mining his family pain for years (he is now 76) and is described as so depressed when in college that he had panic attacks and slept 18 hours a day. I remember him onstage in Chicago shilling for the only film he has directed in the past decade since “The Sopranos,” “Not Fade Away” (which did fade away). He would have been voted the person you would least like to be trapped in an elevator with. He was withdrawn, taciturn and spoke very little. His nickname is Cylinder Machine.
In 2012, David Chase (real surname DeCesare) directed a movie, “Not Fade Away,” set in the sixties about a young boy who wants to be in a successful rock band. This, too, is autobiographical from Chase’s youth in the sixties, when he really did want to play drums and bass in a rock band. His parents were not supportive of that career choice, nor of his desire to make movies. His success came about writing for television for “The Rockford Files” in the early seventies. It was his real-life therapy that he wove into Tony Soprano’s story on “The Sopranos.” The huge success of the series surprised many people, including Chase.
Chase has a fairly low opinion of television and Hollywood, historically, seems to have had a fairly low opinion of him. As he has said, “I wrote many, many, many a script and they never got made. I could not get arrested, as they say. Nothing started to click movie-wise for me. All the scripts were either too dark or too this or that. Their appetite for me didn’t get whetted until The Sopranos (1999), and once they see you are someone who can make a billion dollars, they let you do anything. That’s all it comes down to.”
Since “The Sopranos” went off the air, Chase has made just one feature film (“Not Fade Away,” 2012) and created one additional television series (“Altindagli,”2013). Now he has returned to television with this star-studded vehicle, with voice-over by Michael Imperioli, who portrayed Christopher Moltisanti on “The Sopranos” series. (“Moltisanti” translates to “many saints” and explains the title of the film.)
This time out, Chase is the producer. The writer is Lawrence Konner, based on Chase’s “Sopranos” characters. The directing is by “Game of Thrones” alumnus Alan Taylor. I enjoyed the stroll down memory lane, although the disjointed plot with emphasis on everyone except Tony drove many of my friends into critical carping territory. It was a fairly entertaining, if non-linear, look into the past.