This Sopranos origin story lands midway between a dysfunctional family reunion and a “come as your favourite television gangster” freshers’ week costume party. Either way, it’s undeniably entertaining stuff, but this choppy collage-style portrait of the formative figures in the life of the young Tony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini) is better suited to the needs of existing fans rather than those of Sopranos neophytes. It’s poignant casting – Gandolfini is the son of the late James Galdolfini, who played Tony in the TV series – but the role can feel a little peripheral, as if Tony is on the sidelines of his own tale.
Fans are more likely to forgive the crude characterisation of some of the younger versions of Sopranos stalwarts: Junior Soprano is defined by his distinctive glasses and near-limitless capacity to bear grudges; Silvio Dante by his horseshoe mouth and thinning hair; Paulie Walnuts by his vanity. But without a background knowledge of the series, these could feel more like caricatures than textured characters.
At its best, though, The Many Saints of Newark is a sprawling and immersive account of a time (the late 60s and early 70s) and place (cigar-stained bars, jittery street corners and the blandly aspirational burbs). And for all the ugliness of attitudes and hair-trigger violence, it’s a thrilling, seedily glamorous world to visit. Our guide is the voice of Tony’s “nephew”, the late Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli). It’s not the most elegant of devices, but it does serve to foreground the film’s main asset: a treacherously charming Alessandro Nivola in the role of Dickie Moltisanti, Christopher’s father, and mentor to the young Tony.
Dickie is as ambitious as he is magnetic, as impulsive as he is wily. He looks at the dull-witted made guys, with their big talk and their lumbering, carb-loaded bulk, and sees an opportunity. And he’s not the only one: his girlfriend, Giuseppina (Michela De Rossi, electric), plans to run her own business. And as the civil rights movement gathers force, Dickie’s former lackey Harold (Leslie Odom Jr) aspires to take over the African American side of the mafia’s operations. You don’t need to have watched the series to know that this can’t end well.