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'Sopranos' prequel gives Tony a backstory — without the grace notes of the original

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. "The Sopranos," which ran from HBO from 1999 until its infamous finale in 2007, is back with a movie prequel called "The Many Saints Of Newark." It launched simultaneously last Friday in theaters and on HBO Max. The stars include Michael Gandolfini, the son of James Gandolfini, playing a teen version of Tony Soprano, the mob boss his dad played in the original series. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Fans have waited a long time for another chapter in the Sopranos' story - so long, in fact, that it's been 22 years since the series launched and changed TV history by putting a sinister character at the center of its ongoing story. And it's been 14 years since that unforgettable finale when the narrative of Tony Soprano didn't so much end as it just stopped. "The Many Saints Of Newark" gets around the finale problem by presenting a prequel set years before the events in "The Sopranos" took place, but it still has another problem which is coming up with a movie-length drama that works both for people who remember the events and characters in "The Sopranos" and those who don't. And on that count, "The Many Saints Of Newark" is a very mixed bag.

It's a tricky balancing act. The best movie prequel to a TV drama series remains David Lynch's "Twin Peaks" film "Fire Walk With Me." The best prequel period is the "Better Call Saul" series offshoot from "Breaking Bad," one of the many excellent shows to follow the path "The Sopranos" trailblazed. Vince Gilligan's brilliant TV drama showed a man getting more and more evil as the story progressed.

This new "Sopranos" story does that, too, following Tony as a youngster and a teen as the movie starts in 1967 and, halfway through, shifts in time to 1971. But it starts with an awkward and unsatisfying framing device, visiting a cemetery and having us listen to voices speaking to us from beyond the grave. One of them is the voice of Christopher Moltisanti, supplied by original "Sopranos" co-star Michael Imperioli.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

MICHAEL IMPERIOLI: (As Christopher Moltisanti) I met death on Route 23, not too far from here. But that was much later. Back in 1967, the man wearing the hat was my father. In those days, he didn't have a son.

BIANCULLI: But that man, Dickie Moltisanti, is played by Alessandro Nivola. Tony's uncle Dickie turns out to be the central character in this movie, but he's not one of the real standouts. In addition to Michael Gandolfini, inheriting his father's role as Tony and doing it very well, the real standouts would include Ray Liotta, who brings equal intensity to two different tough-guy roles, and Michela De Rossi, who is fiery and formidable as Giuseppina, an Italian immigrant who figures in the lives of several men in this story, and my favorite, Vera Farmiga, who plays a younger version of Tony's abrasive mother, Livia, and absolutely channels the spirit of Nancy Marchand, who originated the role in "The Sopranos." Here she is as Livia, meeting with a school guidance counselor to discuss young Tony. Talia Balsam plays the counselor.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

TALIA BALSAM: (As Mrs. Jarecki) On the basis of the Sanford-Binet, he's high-IQ, and you know that.

VERA FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) You can't prove it by me. He's got a D-plus average.

BALSAM: (As Mrs. Jarecki) Well, that's because he doesn't apply himself. But he is smart.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) There's a big difference between a smart person and a smart alec.

BALSAM: (As Mrs. Jarecki) I also administered the Briggs-Myer (ph) personality inventory just now, and the results tell us he's a leader - enthusiastic, insightful, playful.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) You're talking through your hat.

BIANCULLI: Tony as a teen is played by Michael Gandolfini, and a bit later, mother and son get to share a scene in which both players get to sound and act uncannily like the actors who preceded them in their roles. We even get to hear Livia's unforgettable trademark phrase.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MANY SAINTS OF NEWARK")

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) You smoking marijuana, I suppose.

MICHAEL GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Mom, I'm on the team.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Your sister is. I'm almost sure of it.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) This hamburger's great, ma.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Ah, go on. I went to all that trouble just so we could have a nice conversation for once, and for what? How am I supposed to enjoy a Broadway show with my children and their pot?

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Ma, I don't smoke pot.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Well, your sister comes in here smelling like a gypsy.

GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) Well, I'm not my sister. I'm always being accused.

FARMIGA: (As Livia Soprano) Ah, poor you.

BIANCULLI: But that famous catchphrase is caught only by those fans who remember it. The real joy of "The Many Saints Of Newark" is seeing glimpses of "Sopranos" characters as they pop up. There's Paulie Walnuts and Tony's sister, Janice, and Carmela. But all of those characters are underused. What's worse, what happens in this movie prequel has no real sense of clarity. It's a confusing narrative, and it's not at all easy to keep track of the relationships among the characters.

One of the things that made "The Sopranos" such a superb dramatic series was its subtlety. Characters rarely, if ever, said what they really thought, even in therapy. In this new movie, intentions and motivations are revealed, often overtly. "Sopranos" creator David Chase, who wrote the script with Lawrence Conner, seems to have no problem embracing this more obvious approach, which is unfortunate. Director Alan Taylor is good with his cast. The performances are the best aspect of "The Many Saints Of Newark." But his visual flair tends to show itself only when there's a dead body to focus on, which, in this "Sopranos" prequel, is often. This new drama shows, over time, how Tony Soprano broke bad - just not with the same flair and grace notes we've come to expect from "The Sopranos."

DAVIES: David Bianculli is a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. He reviewed the movie prequel of "The Sopranos" TV series called "The Many Saints Of Newark."

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG")

DAVIES: On the next FRESH AIR, Terry speaks with Fiona Hill. She became famous for testifying at Trump's first impeachment hearing, condemning the false narrative that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the election. She served as the top Russia expert in the Trump White House. In a new memoir, she warns we might be headed towards authoritarianism. I hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG")

DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Sam Briger. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DON BYRON'S "GOON DRAG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.