Here's how Tony Soprano fits into the movie prequel 'The Many Saints of Newark'

·7 min read

"The Sopranos" revolved, of course, around Tony Soprano.

"The Many Saints of Newark," the long-awaited movie prequel (in theaters Friday and streaming on HBO Max), shows us a very different solar system.

Here, the center is Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola), Tony's favorite uncle – the father of the Christopher Moltisanti that we'll get to know so well in the series. He's the star around whom much of the 1960s and 1970s mob life of Newark orbits.

Tony, a child and then a teenager in the film, is off to one side. Shining in the reflected light. Important, but not central, to the story.

Except in hindsight – knowing what we know about his future.

Young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, left) looks up to his mobster uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, right, with Michela De Rossi) in "The Sopranos" prequel crime drama "The Many Saints of Newark."
Young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini, left) looks up to his mobster uncle Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, right, with Michela De Rossi) in "The Sopranos" prequel crime drama "The Many Saints of Newark."

That Galileo-like paradigm shift, from a Tony-centric to Dickie-centric universe, could be a challenge for some "Sopranos" fans – especially since the film has been touted as "A Sopranos Story," and emphasis placed on the casting coup of Michael Gandolfini in his late father's role.

"In a way, that was something that got away from us," says director Alan Taylor. "We couldn't control it. Because it was such a delightful story, a beautiful story."

The likeness of Michael Gandolfini to his father James is indeed striking. But it's secondary to the main business of the film.

Fans, Taylor says, should be able to take all this in stride, making the necessary mental adjustments to the film's frame of reference within the first few minutes.

"Hopefully, it's not too much of a recalibration, because I'd like to think we're still very much in the same world," Taylor says.

He knows that world well. He directed nine episodes of "The Sopranos," and was the personal choice of series creator David Chase (who also co-wrote and produced the film) to direct.

Managing audience expectations has been a bit of a challenge with this film – since it has to please in equal measure "Sopranos" buffs, non-fans who wouldn't know the Bada Bing from a Bing cherry, and a Hollywood that is counting on the much-hyped "Saints" to jump-start the moviegoing habit after 18 months of COVID.

"Warner Bros. had to decide the best way to market this movie, how to introduce people to it," Taylor says. "They were right to think that the way in was Tony – because that's who we know."

'Sopranos' sequel: 'Many Saints of Newark' trailer reveals Michael Gandolfini as Tony Soprano

Michael Gandolfini stars as Tony Soprano in the "Sopranos" prequel "The Many Saints of Newark."
Michael Gandolfini stars as Tony Soprano in the "Sopranos" prequel "The Many Saints of Newark."

Interest was built up over the course of two trailers, Taylor says, with a subtle shift in emphasis.

"The first trailer led with Tony and took us to Dickie." he says. "The second trailer was much more Dickie-centric. Truer to the spirit of the movie, I think. It had the kind of humor and ridiculousness you saw in the show. Between those two trailers, they sort of did a good job of saying … 'You've heard of Tony. Here's the guy who made Tony. We're going to tell his story.' "

There are some gimmes for hard-core "Sopranos" fans. One is the uncanny casting of actors playing younger versions of familiar "Sopranos" characters.

Even in the best movies, this can often be hit-or-miss: Do we really believe that Robert De Niro – great as he is – could grow up to be Marlon Brando? We grant it, because "The Godfather Part II" is a great movie.

But in "The Many Saints of Newark," Billy Magnussen, as young Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri, is a dead ringer for the his older self in the series, played by Tony Sirico.

The same is true for the young Uncle Junior (Corey Stoll), who will grow up to be Dominic Chianese; the younger Livia (Vera Farmiga), who will turn into the diabolical Nancy Marchand; and the young Silvio Dante (John Magaro), who already has the distinctive Steven Van Zandt pout.

"He totally had Steve's walk down, and the leaning into the camera," Taylor says. "He spent time with Steve to make sure he got it right. And the other big one I think is good is Livia. She nailed it."

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And of course, it's no effort to buy Michael Gandolfini as a teenage James Gandolfini. Though Michael himself was not so easy to convince. He hadn't watched "The Sopranos" during its initial run. And he had grave reservations about taking on his father's signature role.

"I've head that his first reaction to his agent was, 'Hell no,' " Taylor says. "That was his totally sane response. 'No, I'm not going down this road. I'm not going to take this on.' But what happened was, he thought about it, it started to get to him, and by the time we met, he wanted it."

That doesn't mean he was a shoo-in.

"Two things I had to reassure myself was, number one, could he do it?" Taylor says. "So we made him audition like a regular guy. And I also had to see that he really wanted it. Because part of me – part of all of us – was wondering, what would Jim think about this? Would this be OK with him? Once we had cast him, and the cast kind of circled around him, it became so clearly the right thing for the movie.

"Before we started shooting, we were in a New Jersey restaurant, and he stood up and said, 'I want to thank everybody for giving me this chance to say hello to my dad again – and to say goodbye again.' And it brought the house down. From that point on, it was kind of like, 'Of course.' "

The meticulousness of the casting is mirrored in the period re-creations. Even more than "The Sopranos," "The Many Saints of Newark" is tied to the memories of Chase, who grew up in New Jersey at precisely the time the movie takes place.

That was the mid-to-late 1960s – when the power structure in Newark was shifting from the Italian bosses who had dominated the city's politics (and less legitimate activities) for years to the African-Americans who, following the "long hot summer" of violent protest in 1967, gained ascendency.

It is a period when smiling, charming, inadvertently murderous Dickie Moltisanti – "Moltisanti" means "many saints" – is the friendly father figure in the neighborhood, coaching baseball games for blind children, and incidentally coaching his shy nephew Tony (William Ludwig, then Gandolfini) in the finer points of extra-legal activity.

"You say to yourself, 'That's the last time I'm gonna steal something,' " he says. "It's that simple."

Alan Taylor, director of "The Many Saints of Newark," wondered how James Gandolfini would feel about his son's casting. "Would this be OK with him?" But once the decision was made, "it became so clearly the right thing for the movie," Taylor says.
Alan Taylor, director of "The Many Saints of Newark," wondered how James Gandolfini would feel about his son's casting. "Would this be OK with him?" But once the decision was made, "it became so clearly the right thing for the movie," Taylor says.

Moltisanti is also the boss of the numbers racket in Newark. At least until Harold McBrayer ("Hamilton" star Leslie Odom Jr.), his lieutenant, begins to wonder why he shouldn't get more than crumbs.

"It's because of David's writing and the casting of Leslie Odom Jr. that the storyline holds its own in this movie," Taylor says.

Though "The Many Saints of Newark" is set further back in time than "The Sopranos," the issues it deals with seem, if anything, more contemporary in 2021. The film was begun in 2019, before "Black Lives Matter" had become a mantra. But the 1967 Newark riots – even the name is divisive – remain a tender subject.

"I was worried about how the movie I was making was going to land," Taylor says. "But I think it works. It's more relevant and timely, in a way. But it was very dicey there for a while. This is a very raw topic."

Like the "Sopranos" series, "The Many Saints of Newark" features extensive location shooting in New Jersey. (Holsten’s, where Tony had his "last supper" in the series, makes an encore appearance in the film.)

"We took over two or three blocks and transformed them for the riots," Taylor says. "We researched the hell out of it."

There are sights that some may not know about, or would prefer to forget. Tanks on the streets. Stores aflame. Shop windows smashed. Police and rioters battling it out like opposing armies. But people in Newark remember.

"We had people coming out, and some of them had tears in their eyes, and they were saying, 'This is just how I remember it,' 'This is what it felt like.' "

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: 'The Many Saints of Newark' movie: Tony Soprano plays a smaller role

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