5/10 The Many Saints of Newark opens with Michael Imperioli, who played Christopher Moltisanti in “The Sopranos,” narrating about what will happen in the future and spoiling one of the show’s best plot points for seemingly no reason. Many Saints is a competent enough film, but I would strongly advise against watching it for that reason alone unless you’ve already seen the entire show. It was made exclusively for “Sopranos” experts, anyhow, and never makes any attempt to exist as its own piece of media.
Newark, July 12, 1967- A black cab driver named John William Smith is arrested and beaten by Newark police, kicking off the 1967 Newark riots. Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), an associate of Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), joins the riots, and eventually flees the state to avoid a murder warrant. Moltisanti and the rest of the DiMeo crime family, including older characters who appear in “The Sopranos,” take advantage of the police’s increased focus on black Newarkers. Four years later, McBrayer returns and attempts to organize the remaining black community into a crime organization to rival the DiMeos, triggering a race war.
The Many Saints of Newark, despite being made exclusively for fans of the show it is a prequel to, looks and feels nothing like an episode of “The Sopranos,” and this is the biggest mark against it. The show was shot on Panavision cameras onto 35mm film and is grainier than a beach in some scenes, and it was characterized by an abrupt editing style serving the framing device of Tony Soprano, who appears in this prequel played by William Ludwig and Michael Gandolfini after the timeskip, speaking to a therapist – I’ve argued at length that these are two of the biggest features that define the show.
The Many Saints of Newark was shot on the Arri Alexa, the camera used for all MCU movies, onto Codex storage devices, a company that was founded toward the end of “The Sopranos” run, and it’s noticeably color corrected to the same teal and orange color palette we’re used to seeing in nearly all blockbusters today. Christopher Tellefsen’s editing is fine, it’s not really noticeable, which is the traditional goal of movie editing, but that absolutely shouldn’t be the goal here.
The Many Saints of Newark is most similar to an episode of “The Sopranos” in the sense that nothing really happens in it. The plot seems eventful, but the conflict between McBrayer and Moltisanti takes up only a small fraction of the 120 minute runtime, the rest are spent on side plots that have some connection to the show, but no narrative momentum. The heart of “The Sopranos” was the interaction between Tony and his therapist, which created multiple tiers of story by separating what happened from Tony’s version of events. The core opportunity of flashing back to The Many Saints of Newark was to create the same thing with some of the events of Tony’s childhood, but they don’t. Plenty of scenes that are described in the show take place as described, and there’s very little recontextualization in sight – maybe viewers who know the series better than I do will get more of that.
It ends up reminding me more than anything of El Camino, that “Breaking Bad” sequel movie that also had nothing going on in which the major takeaway was also wonder why it was made. If they’re not going to recreate the feel and dynamics of “The Sopranos” in any way, what’s the point of revisiting the story world?
“The Sopranos” was built on trust for its audience to understand that loose threads don’t matter, what matters is onscreen, and that’s a very strange sentence to type in 2021, because loose threads are now a principal part of a movie’s return on investment. Loose threads are what get viewers jonesing for sequels. There are entire scenes dedicated to building loose threads now, and the more desperate studios have taken to stuffing their movies as full of loose threads as possible and monitoring social media to see which ones will be most profitable to pull on.
“The Sopranos” was one of the last television shows that was free from this specific sort of cynicism, where the goal was to sell viewers a finished, complete piece of art and not try to eke out more sales opportunities other than by creating satisfied viewers, and it’s disturbing to see it applied to this show.