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‘Many Saints of Newark’ Preview Fills in ‘The Sopranos’ Tragic Backstory

Michael Gandolfini as the teenage Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in 'The Many Saints of Newark.'
Michael Gandolfini as the teenage Tony Soprano and Alessandro Nivola as Dickie Moltisanti in ‘The Many Saints of Newark.’ Warner Bros./YouTube

Very few (if any) shows come close to portraying the emotional complexity and vivid drama of David Chase’s The Sopranos. In the over 20 years since the show’s HBO debut, the mythology surrounding The Sopranos has only trebled. As new fans come of age, entire books are released analyzing its thematic and narrative depth.

Now, a prequel movie, The Many Saints of Newark, is debuting on HBO Max and in select theaters. Whether or not you’ve seen The Sopranos, it’s best to review the relevant plot points and the real world the Saints will attempt to cover in 120 minutes. (Some spoilers ahead.)

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 Saints will explore young Tony Soprano’s life with actor Michael Gandolfini, James’ real-life son, in a reverse act of art imitating life. Who better to channel such an iconic performance and paint a convincing portrait of a much younger Tony?

Saints is set in 1967, when Tony is still just a high school student, giving audiences a much better idea of what the mob boss was like before his life in organized crime. According to previews, he’s a troubled kid with big dreams and terrible influences around him. The tragedy of Tony’s repressed sensitivity and squandered smarts will come into full view in Saints. 

The movie will shine a spotlight on the man who shaped Tony’s path more than any other — Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola). Tony had immense respect for Dickie, a man he viewed as a mentor, role model, and father figure and it’s thanks to “Uncle” Dickie’s guidance that Tony worked his way up the New Jersey mob ranks. The prequel is as much Dickie’s story (if not more so) as Tony’s.

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It’s safe to say Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti is the most important Sopranos character who never actually appears in the series. Dickie is dead before The Sopranos events, but he’s alluded to by his son Christopher, Tony, and others numerous times over the course of six seasons.

The rest of the Soprano family will also appear, with Jon Bernthal appearing as young Tony’s father Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano, Corey Stoll playing Corrado “Junior” Soprano and Vera Farmiga as Tony’s brutally unaffectionate mother Livia. (The movie offers another glimpse at how much her brand of parenting warped Tony into the man he becomes.)

Tony’s familiar mob underlings are also revealed in their younger forms (with plenty of foreshadowing). This includes Paulie “Walnuts” Gualtieri (Billy Magnussen), Silvio Dante (John Magaro) and Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero (Samson Moeakiola). Even Christopher Moltisanti will appear in the film, albeit as an infant. 

One trailer reveals a baby Christopher sobbing uncontrollably upon meeting Tony, after which a family member suggests newborns carry knowledge of their own future into the world. Even though co-creators David Chase and director Alan Taylor designed this as a standalone film, it’s clear from scenes like this that Saints will be best appreciated understanding what the future holds for these characters.

While these gangsters are fictional, the movie’s summer of 1967 backdrop is very real. Newark, like a number of major American cities, experienced a spate of violent clashes between police and people protesting racial and economic inequality during “The Long Hot Summer.”

By 1967, Newark had become one of the first urban areas in the United States with a majority African American population, despite still having mostly white politicians controlling the local government. That powder keg finally exploded in July with the violent arrest of Black cab driver, John William Smith. 

These riots serve as a backdrop and a crucial plot point in Saints, with a major clash between the DiMeo crime family (with the Sopranos and Moltisantis as members) and a rival crime family led by Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.).

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