“I’m not coming back to ‘The Sopranos,’” Aida Turtorro, the two-time Emmy nominee for her role as Janice Soprano in the iconic HBO series, said Wednesday on the red carpet for the show’s long-awaited prequel movie, “The Many Saints of Newark.” “The truth is,” she said, “I’m not sure I ever left.”
Inside the film’s world premiere—where the Beacon Theatre in New York City overflowed with guests, including Edie Falco, Steve Buscemi, Steven Van Zandt and cast members Michael Gandolfini, Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom, Jr., Vera Farmiga, Corey Stoll and Ray Liotta — Robert De Niro took the stage. “‘The Sopranos’ is ‘The Godfather’ of the Golden Age of television,” De Niro said, there to kick-off Tribeca’s Fall Preview. “And I have a certain fondness for prequels to gangster stories.”
At the premiere, over fourteen years in the making since creator David Chase ended the show in 2007, Turtorro’s and De Niro’s measurements embodied the evening’s coexistent scales — personal and profound.
For the millions of Americans who gathered on Sundays to watch a collection of the greatest television anti-heroes ever written, Chase’s “The Many Saints of Newark,” a prequel film following Tony Soprano’s mentor Dickie Moltisanti in the 1960s and ’70s, is a coming home to a crime family which the privacy and intimacy of television could afford. And at the same time, “Many Saints,” which stars Nivola as Dickie and the late James Gandolfini’s son Michael as Tony, offers a significant expansion of “The Sopranos” universe. For Chase, who throughout the 2000s epitomized the emerging creative power of the writer-showrunner, “Many Saints” is a reversion to film, a collision of “The Sopranos” with the great canon of gangster movies that molded its creator.
“David is very cagey about what he’s doing,” admitted the film’s Emmy-winning director, Alan Taylor. “I don’t think he likes to give anything away, but I, like you, had to figure out what this film was about.”
“Yes, you can’t come to this movie without wondering about Tony,” Taylor continued, “because we know where he wound up. You wonder, is his destiny shaped? And for me, the question for all of us is whether we can rewrite who we are. Every character is trying to rewrite themself in this film.”
Like “The Sopranos,” New Line Cinema’s “Many Saints” is concerned with the twisted psyches that turn its characters into monsters, sharing in a Freudian impulse that distinguishes the film as uniquely part of Chase’s gangster universe. When mobsters in “Many Saints” murder, they commit crimes of passion — violent outbursts from real traumas, not business transactions. And when racial strife colors the narrative, backdropped by the Newark race riots, it’s not just fodder for violence, but a commentary on assimilation, Americanism and the original conceit of the gangster film itself.
“When David put Tony on Melfi’s couch, he put America on that couch,” Odom, Jr., who plays Harold, a Black numbers runner who emerges as competition to the DiMeo crime family, told Variety on the red carpet.
“David’s decision to mirror Tony’s upbringing with the Newark race riots, to show the Great Migration and the Italian-American shift to the suburbs, isn’t just meaningful context for the film and current audience,” he said. “It makes the difference between David’s work, between the kind of mobsters he writes, and the kind of gangster films that came before.”
On Wednesday—whatever distinction lay between Chase’s canon and the great American mythology of the gangster film — the looming shadow of Tony Soprano, and the profound loss of Gandolfini, continued to join fans with the characters, the new cast with the old, and the series to the film.
For those who come to the movie searching for Tony to emerge, they’ll find Gandolfini’s son in his place, portraying a much younger Tony in the fog of youth, violence and family strife. Only clues, Taylor told Variety, are there for his making into a mobster.
“It’s the language of this show that there are no clear answers,” he said, moments before heading into the theater. “We don’t go back and say, ‘That’s the moment that made him.’ Some people are looking for when he becomes a gangster. But there’s never an easy answer with this show,” he finished.
“The Russian never comes back from the woods.”