Warning: This story contains major spoilers for The Many Saints of Newark and The Sopranos
The biggest reveal in The Many Saints of Newark is what the film isn’t. Based on early trailers, David Chase’s feature-length prequel to his pioneering HBO series, The Sopranos, appeared to be Tony Soprano: The Early Years, complete with Michael Gandolfini playing the younger version of the role his late father, James Gandolfini, made famous: New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano. And young Tony is definitely present in The Many Saints of Newark, which Chase co-wrote with former Sopranos scribe, Lawrence Konner. (Alan Taylor, who also helmed some of the best episodes of the series, handles directing duties.)
But the central character of the film — which is now playing in theaters and on HBO Max — is long dead by the time the show begins: Richard “Dickie” Moltisanti, father of Tony’s doomed not-quite nephew, Christopher (Michael Imperioli) who narrates the movie from beyond the grave. Alessandro Nivola plays Dickie in The Many Saints of Newark, which unfolds between the late 1960s and early 1970s, and depicts a rapidly-changing Newark that has major implications for the present and future of the DiMeo crime family that both the Moltisanti and Soprano clans belong to. Dickie’s own life is full of turbulence as well: an old-school charmer who is also prone to fits of violent rage, he’s forever looking for ways to redeem his trespasses only to encounter fresh excuses to break bad.
While the circumstances surrounding Dickie’s death are discussed in the series, The Many Saints of Newark ends with a new revelation that will blow Sopranos fans away. Christopher was still a child when his father was gunned down outside the family home, but grew up unaware of the assassin’s identity. Tony — who was only a teenager when his favorite “uncle” died — supposedly solved that mystery for him in the Season 4 premiere, “For All Debts Public and Private.” In that episode, Tony points the finger at recently retired New Jersey cop, Detective Lt. Barry Haydu, and dispatches Christopher to visit the former officer so he can prove he’s ready to advance through the mob ranks.
When he finally comes face to face with his father’s supposed killer, though, Haydu insists he never fired the gun that killed Dickie Moltisanti. In fact, he never knew him to begin with. “I don’t know who told you I had anything to do with the death of your father, but their information is faulty. Or they are deliberately not telling you the truth,” Haydu insists. Christopher takes his vengeance anyway, shooting the ex-cop in his home while a Magnum P.I. repeat plays on the TV. In fact, one of the lines heard in that Magnum episode is “I’m sorry,” — a bit of dialogue that some viewers misattributed to Haydu as his supposed confession.
Turns out that Haydu was right all along. The climax of The Many Saints of Newark reveals that Tony’s Uncle Dickie was shot by a gunman on the orders of… Corrado “Junior” Soprano, Tony’s actual uncle. In The Sopranos timeline, Junior (played by Dominic Chianese) is in control of the DiMeo family, although that power steadily slips as he’s beset by health problems over the course of the series. In The Many Saints of Newark, Corrado (played by Corey Stoll) is just one of many gangsters vying for a seat at the table, overshadowed by bigger personalities like Dickie and Tony’s father, Giovanni “Johnny Boy” Soprano (Jon Bernthal). But that streak of vanity and suspicion that plagues him later in life is still very much present here, and it’s at the root of his falling out with Dickie.
Early on in the movie, Junior becomes the first Soprano to embrace Dickie as a brother following the death of his father Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (Ray Liotta) — a death that Dickie is actually responsible for. But that affection starts to curdle as Christopher’s dad establishes himself as a popular member of both the DiMeo and Soprano families. He’s particularly beloved by Tony, who considers him the only adult worth listening to. Junior’s breaking point comes when he almost breaks his back after falling down some slippery steps. Watching this Charlie Chaplin-esque pratfall, Dickie can’t help but laugh… and that laughter rings in Junior’s ears until it drives him to murder.
Junior never told anyone about his role in Dickie’s death — nobody who was still alive during The Sopranos anyway. It seems unlikely that Tony ever knew the real story, given the high esteem he still has for Dickie decades after his murder. That youthful admiration — which Michael Gandolfini portrays so effectively in The Many Saints of Newark — is the reason why he takes Christopher under his wing in the first place, although that story also ends in tragedy. Just as Uncle Junior murdered Dickie Moltisanti, Uncle Tony eventually becomes Christopher Moltisanti’s killer, strangling him to death in one of the final episodes of the series.
Chase foreshadows Christopher’s fate with the evocative last scene of Many Saints, which teases exactly how this cycle of familial violence will continue: at Dickie’s funeral, Tony peers down at his uncle’s casket. Then, in close-up, we see him reaching his hand down as Dickie’s hand rises up and their fingers connect. “That’s Tony Soprano,” Christopher comments dryly in voiceover. “The man who sent me to hell.” Cue The Sopranos theme song, and roll the closing credits.
Dickie’s fate is the most consequential piece of Sopranos lore revealed during The Many Saints of Newark, but the movie is filled with many other callbacks as well. Here’s your Easter egg guide to Chase’s newest crime story.
They’re only young once
Tony and Junior aren’t the only Sopranos characters who get a youthful makeover in Many Saints. In the Sopranos household, The Conjuring‘s Vera Farmiga plays Tony’s mother, Livia (played by the late Nancy Marchand in the show), while newcomer Alexandra Intrator is the teenage version of his sister, Janice (later played by Aida Turturro).
Meanwhile, Dickie’s extended crime family includes three of Tony’s future henchmen in their youthful prime. Samson Moeakiola plays Salvatore Bonpensiero, a.k.a. Big Pussy, who ends up sleeping with the fishes in Season 2 of The Sopranos. Billy Magnussen is the young Paulie Walnuts — who will one day chase a Russian gangster through the New Jersey Pine Barrens with Dickie’s grown son. Last but not least, First Cow star John Magaro is Silvio Dante, who grows up to have a fabulous toupee… uh, head of hair! That progression is depicted in the film as Silvio’s combover eventually becomes a wig followed by the hairpiece that rocker Steven Van Zandt rocked on The Sopranos.
First, do no Carm
Apart from Imperioli, no Sopranos cast members make an appearance in Many Saints. But Alan Taylor recently revealed to NME that Edie Falco reprised her Emmy-winning role as Tony’s wife, Carmela, for a scene that was ultimately cut from the film. Even though Falco hit the cutting room floor, Carm is still in the movie. She’s the blonde teenager that’s standing outside a phone booth as Tony tries to call Dickie and enlist him to buy booze for a house party. When Dickie declines to answer the phone multiple times, Tony’s other friend needles him about it, sparking a fight. In the ensuing melee, the furious Soprano shoves his future spouse to the ground. We’re sorry to report that they’ll be having much worse fights later on.
Don’t stop believing
Holsten’s may be good news for ice cream lovers, but it’s nothing but bad news for Tony Soprano. Towards the end of Many Saints, Tony vainly waits at the world famous New Jersey eatery for his Uncle Dickie to show up for two scoops of reconciliation. But he’s waiting in vain — Dickie has been shot and killed, but the news hasn’t reached his biggest admirer. Jump ahead several decades to The Sopranos finale and Tony is once again waiting in Holsten’s… this time for his daughter, Meadow, to park her car. Oh yeah, and he may also be waiting for his own death depending on how you interpret that notorious series-ending cut to black.
Speaking of ice cream, another memorable scene in Many Saints finds Tony and his crew hijacking a Mr. Softee truck and tearing through the suburban streets before pulling up at a playground where they hand out free cones to the kiddies. His wild behind the wheel steering recalls that famous scene in The Sopranos pilot where his grown-up self goes off-road while pursuing a fleeing mark who owes him money. Clearly he lives by the motto: “Drive it like you stole it.”
The guidance counselor is in
Tony definitely has a type when it comes to the kind of women he likes to confide in: brunette professionals with excellent taste in eyewear. Years before he books an appointment with New Jersey’s best psychiatrist, Dr. Jennifer Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), he has a heart-to-heart with his high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Jarecki (Talia Balsam). The problem-plagued teenager is definitely on a road to nowhere good, but she’s temporarily able to make him feel better about himself. Of course, she then goes and makes the mistake of arranging a sit-down conversation with his mother. Even Dr. Melfi would have recognized a lost cause if she laid eyes on Livia.
Vera Farmiga doesn’t log a lot of screentime in Many Saints, but she makes every scene count. Case in point: there’s a terrific sequence midway though the movie where Livia invites Tony into the kitchen for an afternoon burger and good conversation. Unfortunately, their mother/son talk quickly blows up when Tony suggests that his mom might benefit from a new pill he’s heard about via ads and a popular Rolling Stones song: Elavil or “mother’s little helper.” Livia predictably flips out and drops the P-phrase — “Poor you!” — that Marchand made famous later in life. Interestingly, at Tony’s request, Dickie did manage to procure some Elavil to give to Livia and had the pills in his pocket the night he was killed. But no one realized who they were really for, which explains why Christopher grew up believing the rumors that his dad had a drug problem.
The History Channel — not to mention cable television — didn’t exist during Tony’s youth, but he still found a way to get his history fix. Suspended from school after trying to organize a numbers racket, the kid seeks refuge in comic book versions of classic works of historical literature. When Dickie visits him to talk about the importance of being a good student, he finds Tony engrossed in a Classics Illustrated version of Walter Scott’s medieval favorite, Ivanhoe. His adult self must own the 1997 miniseries version on DVD.
The Many Saints of Newark is currently playing in theaters and on HBO Max.