Here’s the irony about David Chase, the television producer who created the landmark series, The Sopranos. Much like the characters he created in the HBO mob drama, the man is a pillar of misery. He has everything in his life that should make him happy, but like a flock of ducks, happiness seems to elude him.
I’ve never heard Chase state this explicitly in any interview, but I think he always wanted to be a film maker. But somehow, he ended up as a television producer. He found himself chafing against the constraints of network sensibilities from the 1970’s when he served as a writer on The Rockford Files, to the 1990’s when he worked on Northern Exposure.
At long last, HBO and Chase came together in a match made in heaven. The lack of broadcast network control allowed Chase to write and produce The Sopranos with no creative inhibitions. In an interview with Peter Bogdanovich, he stated that he thought the pilot would fail and he would turn it into an independent film. No such luck. Instead, The Sopranos was a groundbreaking, runaway smash that became the gold standard for everything that came after it on television.
After The Sopranos concluded, Chase made one film called, Not Fade Away. If you’ve never heard about it, there’s a reason. It was entirely forgettable.
Chase was plagued by fans and media figures who all wanted to know if he would ever make a sequel to The Sopranos. It is doubtful that he ever would have done so, even if James Gandolfini had lived. Chase is no more likely to spell out the meaning of the black screen of doom than George Martin is to finish his epic fantasy series. But I think he still wanted to make a film that would be taken seriously by both fans and critics. At 75 years and counting, what better way to go out on his own terms than to make a prequel to his greatest achievement? Yet, in a usual Chase twist, said prequel would hype the origin story of Tony Soprano, but would fake out hopefuls who would crowd into movie theaters everywhere. It would really be the origin story of Tony’s doomed protégé, Christopher Moltisanti by way of his father, Dicky (Alessandro Nivola), with Tony’s role relegated to the background.
So we get The Many Saints of Newark, a period piece set in the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s that tells the story of tensions between the mafia in its glory days and African-American gangsters who were trying to break into the game amidst the Newark riots of 1968.
I won’t try to render a synopsis of the movie. It’s pretty convoluted. The high-lights include James Gandolfini’s real life son Michael playing teenage Tony. And here’s a nitpick from a blind fan. Many critics drool over how much Michael looks like his daddy, but he sure as shit doesn’t sound like him. The adolescent future mafia kingpin we are treated to sounds more like A. J., Tony’s wussbag son from the series.) I seriously doubt this was intentional.
Another irony. There’s a reason why television has come so far since the days of NYPD Blue and Seinfeld. It is the best visual medium for storytelling. If Chase had not caught lightning in a bottle with HBO and turned The Sopranos into a movie, he either would have been accused of doing Goodfellas light, or Analyze This heavy. But the idea of a mafia boss going to a psychiatrist to talk about his inner turmoil allowed the writers to meticulously build this universe of flawed characters. It was a formula, but a winning one that kept audiences coming back week after week, season after season. It was also a formula that could not be duplicated 14 years after the series finale. The complexity of the characters, the quiet moments that illustrated their three dimensional aspects, high-lighted by the occasional brutality of their lifestyle, could not be manufactured in a two-hour movie.
There were other things that worked against Chase. This movie was originally set to premier in September of 2020, but the production schedule was delayed due to an illness in Chase’s family. He wanted to direct it, but said illness forced him to turn the reins over to Alan Taylor. Then, there was the pandemic which hit the movie industry hard, shuttering movie theaters across the country and placing an emphasis on streaming services. Once again, this phenomenon worked for and against Chase. Many people found time to get introduced or reacquainted with The Sopranos as they sat stranded on their couches during lockdown like Uncle Junior. This should have stoked the fires of interest of Many Saints, but reports indicate that Chase was angered when he learned that HBO was going to drop the movie on their streaming platform on the same day when it was released to theaters. He clearly wanted this project to be treated solely as a feature film, but many fans regarded it as little more than a TV movie.
Sidebar: I have a buddy here in Omaha who is a movie buff and I invited him to go watch Many Saints with me in the theater when it premiered last Friday. He said, “It’s not really a big screen event. Let’s do pizza at my place and we can watch it there.” No such luck. His internet was down, so we had to settle for Independence Day and Husker volleyball.
After watching the movie alone in my living room with my cat, I have concluded that I am thoroughly against prequels. Whether it’s Breaking Bad, Star Wars or The Sopranos, writers can’t help but play connect-the-dots. Instead of scenes occurring organically, many of them have an obligatory feel, as if they have been created for fan service, rather than to serve a unique story. Many Saints is no different, with the rise and fall of Dickie Moltisanti, to a cameo by Tony’s future wife Carmela, to an ominous voice-over track from Michael Imperioli that falls like an Annville again and again. It does indeed feel as if Chase is ripping off Martin Scorsese, from the omnipresent source music in every scene to Ray Liotta playing the unlikely dual role of Christopher’s grandpa and grand uncle. It seems a shame that Chase can’t enjoy being shaped by his experiences as a television producer, but would rather exude Scorsese envy as he tries to break out on the big screen.
At the end of it all, the movie was just mediocre. I feel about it the same way I did about the Breaking Bad and Deadwood movies and how I’ll probably feel about the return of Dexter next month. It may have filled some bank accounts, but it was all rather superfluous. It probably would have come off better as a limited series, but that’s clearly not what Chase wanted. And in the typical style of Chase, nobody really got what they wanted. There’s talk of Terence Winter of Boardwalk Empire fame possibly producing a sequel, but I won’t hold my breath.
As for David Chase, I’m reminded of a line from The Crown, rendered by Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth. “That’s the thing about unhappiness. All it takes is for something worse to come along and you realize that it was actually happiness after all.”
Perhaps David Chase can have that one etched on his lonely tombstone in his lonely graveyard when his time comes at last.