Courtesy of Warner Bros

It is hard to express the influence that HBO’s “The Sopranos” had on the history of television. The show dominated the television landscape during its eight-year run, continuing to rack up praise and viewers even as shows like “Lost” captivated the country. People continually refer to “The Sopranos” as a beacon of high-quality storytelling and entertainment, naming creator and writer David Chase (“The Rockford Files”) as a bona fide genius, cementing the legacy of well-made HBO shows that continues to this day.

Maybe this is why the return into the world of “The Sopranos” with the recently released prequel film “The Many Saints of Newark” feels so underwhelming. 

The film marketed itself hard as the origin story for James Gandolfini’s (“Enough Said”) iconic character Tony Soprano, but in reality, Chase and co-writer Lawrence Konner (“Boardwalk Empire”) focus on Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola, “American Hustle”), the father of a character from the original series. Tony does play a part in the movie, spending the first hour as a child (William Ludwig, “Side Hustle”) before the film hops forward five years when Tony is a teenager (Michael Gandolfini, “Cherry”). Other characters from the show are here as well, playing parts ranging in size from fun easter egg to vital story characters, but make no mistake: This is Dickie’s story. 

Set in 1967, Dickie Moltisanti welcomes back his father Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta, “Goodfellas”) and his new wife Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi, “Boys Cry”) from their trip to Italy. With his father back in town, Dickie puts pressure on Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr., “One Night in Miami”), a mob enforcer, to get debts owed to the mob. Internal tensions both within the mob and the Black community come to a head during the Newark Riots, causing a deeper rift between Newark’s two prominent communities. Five years later, Harold becomes hellbent on starting up his own gang to rival the mob, setting his sights firmly on Dickie and causing a turf war that ends the only way the criminals know how: Death. 

The plot summary above may seem convoluted — and it is — but it leaves out a lot of details: The movie haphazardly tries to also weave in story beats for known characters like Junior (Corey Stoll, “Ant Man”), and shifts focus to Tony and his relationship with his mother. The script constantly jumps from character to character, a buckshot of narrative that sometimes connects together. The film seemingly wants the core relationship to be between an impressionable Tony Soprano and his Uncle Dickie who wants a better life for him, but it constantly loses track of whose story it is trying to tell, doing a major disservice to both characters. Are audiences supposed to empathize with Tony, with the possible knowledge of the man he will become, or with Dickie, who exists solely for these 120 minutes and remains hard to emotionally understand? 

Director Alan Taylor (“Game of Thrones”), a frequent Chase collaborator on the TV show, does an admirable job bringing a cinematic quality to the work. Scenes are often visually pleasing and the camera work handles a lot of the emotional burden for the hard-to-read Dickie. Taylor puts the set and prop department to work establishing realistic-looking locations and objects, even going so far as to destroy it all for the Riot.

The actors are all top-notch as well. The actors of existing characters channel the original performances while adding their own flair — special mention must be paid to Michael Gandolfini’s performance of the character his father created. He inherits the character with grace and crafts a more naïve, innocent character than the one audiences are familiar with. 

Undoubtedly though, the most interesting characters are the ones created for the film. Nivola conveys Dickie’s main struggles admirably: Is Dickie a violent menace damned for his past deeds or can he redeem himself by doing good things for others? Unfortunately for Nivola, the script simply doesn’t allow enough time or space to get into the depths of Dickie’s mind. For a series that prides itself on in-depth examinations of its characters — the main premise is literally a mobster going to therapy — it’s a huge missed opportunity to never allow the audience to see how Dickie feels. The character is bombastic and emotional, so the few “silent confessions” he has with his uncle Sal Moltisanti (also played by Liotta) feel like tantalizing glimpses into a deeper character lost in the scattershot story. 

One of my biggest gripes with the movie is the sheer amount of racism baked into the script. Joke after joke comes out of the mobsters’ mouths, and slurs are thrown around occasionally to hammer home the “historical accuracy.” Watching the Newark Riot unfold felt like an exercise in endurance, in how long they can show the Black community of Newark suffer while having minimal effect on the plot. There is looting, police violence. Hell, even the National Guard comes in at one point and lets Dickie pass stating, “Go ahead, sir. He’s white.”

The filmed violence hauntingly echoes the real-life violence that played out during the summer of Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. While powerful, the scenes are ultimately shallow imitations that say nothing about the pain and death caused to the Black communities of Newark and the nation from 1967 to the present.

In staying quiet and focusing on the “historical accuracy” over actionable resolutions, the film becomes complicit in the very systems it tries to criticize. Even Harold, the main Black character of the script, is only affected by the Newark Riot for plot reasons, as the devastation prompts him to move to North Carolina halfway through the film, which makes it all the more confusing when he returns to Newark after the time skip (literally like 10 minutes later) to start a Black gang to rival the Italians.

By running drugs, collecting debts and consuming territory, Harold is essentially doing what he used to do for Dickie, except he’s the boss now. Rather than being used to examine the systems that have oppressed the Black community, or even the roles that the Italian mob had to play in the cycle of violence and drugs within Newark, Harold exists to become a villain in the story of Tony Soprano. 

In a virtual press roundtable, I questioned Nivola, Gandolfini and Odom Jr. about their thoughts about how this approach to racism plays in 2021.

According to Nivola, “Based on my conversations with (David Chase) about it all, I think his main objective was to try and depict the language and attitudes and behavior of these guys, at this time, as brutally honest as he could.” He continued, admitting that, “had Harold not been as compelling a character … the whole movie could have been missing that counterweight, and we might have had a bigger problem.”

Odom Jr. offered a similar stance: “My feeling is do not clean (the racism) up, not for me. The bravest thing (art) can do is knock out the fourth wall and let us see you live as you are. You showing me that forces me to look at the ugliness within myself.” 

When the film ended, “The Sopranos” theme song blasting through the speakers while the screen set up for the inevitable sequel, I sat in my seat feeling conflicted. The movie had been thoroughly entertaining, though it was more akin to a two-hour long episode of television than a feature film. The performances carried a script spread too thin, one that had trouble focusing and never really let us become acquainted with the characters. The entire experience was wholly reliant on my knowledge of the TV series — I can only wonder if someone without even my limited familiarity with the show could follow what was happening.

The film never gets around to saying anything important or groundbreaking about the world outside of the mob, but it still weaves an engaging tale (with wildly misleading marketing). Maybe that’s the way it’s always been, though.

As Gandolfini said to close out the roundtable: “(The Riots) happen and then you get to the Soprano family, and it doesn’t touch them. … They’re just so sheltered from it.” 

Digital Culture Beat Editor M. Deitz can be reached at mdeitz@umich.edu.