Reel Streaming: TV or Not TV...The Strange Case of The Sopranos’ David Chase
One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 53
By Laurence Lerman / New York City
Last Friday marked the release of the feature film The Many Saints of Newark, a prequel to the landmark HBO show The Sopranos. The 1999 series, which ran for six smashing seasons, was created, produced and primarily written by David Chase. And its release fulfills Chase's ongoing wish to write and direct feature films. It’s something he has regularly talked about for decades, going so far as to famously announce to director Peter Bogdanovich in a 2001 interview for HBO, “I never wanted to be working in television. I wanted to be doing what you were doing—directing features!” Chase has been even more adamant about his theatrical desires since it was announced a couple of months back that Saints would receive a hybrid rollout and be released day-and-date in both theaters and on streamer HBO Max.
In early September, Chase—whose sole feature directorial credit remains the tepidly received 2012 coming-of-age rock band drama Not Fade Away—announced that he was “extremely angry” when he learned of the distribution plan for Saints. “And I still am,” he added a couple of weeks later. Chase’s anger appears to be rooted in his reasoning that Saints is not like all the other movies that were affected by the pandemic and its effects.
"If one of those executives was sitting here and I was to start pissing and moaning about it, they'd say, ‘you know, there's 17 other movies that have the same problem. What could we do? Covid!,’” Chase told the online film news site Deadline. "Well, I know, but those 16 other movies didn't start out as a television show. They don't have to shed that television image before you get people to the theater. But we do."
“People should go see it in a theater. It was designed to be a movie. It was…it's beautiful as a movie,” he added. “I never thought that it would be back on HBO. Never."
The Many Saints of Newark revolves around young Anthony Soprano, who here is played by 22-year-old Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James Gandolfini. The senior Gandolfini, with his portrayal of New Jersey mob boss/family man Tony Soprano in the original series, created one television’s most complex and richly realized characters.
In this go-round, the younger Tony comes of age in Newark during the tumultuous 1960s, a time when rival gangster outfits are challenging the city’s most powerful crime family as the area’s simmering racial tensions begin to boil over. In this world, Tony comes under the mentorship of his criminally invested uncle (played by Alessandro Nivola), whose personal and professional influence helps to forge the impressionable young man into the Mafioso we all know as Tony Soprano.
The Many Saints of Newark is directed by HBO mainstay Alan Taylor, who previously helmed nine episodes of The Sopranos along with installment of such HBO winners as Oz, Sex and The City, Rome, Bored to Death and Game of Thrones). Featuring a script by writer/producer Chase and his longtime partner Lawrence Konner, it's a suitably entertaining feature--intelligent, conscientious and very watchable.
That said, it doesn’t deliver the goods as a standalone movie, but rather as an extended episode in the Sopranos saga—a forerunning, fan service installment that reaffirms Chase’s talents as a brilliant creator of grandiose, novelistic television programming. As handsomely produced and visually cinematic as it may be, Saints still feels like a long chapter of your favorite prestigious cable TV show. That is true even with its cast of familiar big screen faces like Jon Bernthal, Leslie Odom Jr, Corey Stoll, Vera Farmiga, and, the original “Goodfella” himself, Ray Liotta.
Oh, and I happily watched it in my living room on HBO Max.
Why David Chase is so unhappy with his status as one of the most respected and talented visionaries in this latest golden era of television is completely beyond me. That he is one of the first of his kind in a rarefied gallery of 21st Century prestige television mavericks that includes David Simon (The Wire), Shonda Rhimes (Grey’s Anatomy), David Milch (Deadwood) and Darren Star (Sex and The City), among others, makes it even harder to swallow.
The 76-year-old Mr. Chase began his Hollywood career in the 1970s as a prolific young television writer and then producer of such memorable shows as Kolchak: The Night Stalker (1975), The Rockford Files (1976) and Northern Exposure (1993), along with such forgotten ones as Almost Grown (1988) and, my preteen favorite, The Magician (1973), a single-season mystery adventure starring Bill Bixby as a prestidigitator who moonlights as an amateur crimefighter.
“I was the first writer from the LSD, rock’n’roll generation to have a responsible role in network television,” Chase remembered of his early days in TV, in a recent interview on the just-released Blu-ray of The Night Stalker series.
“The Night Stalker was real Hollywood—a bunch of crap put together that somehow worked,” he added of the supernaturally infused cult favorite that would become a major influence years later on such seminal TV fare as The X-Files (1993) and Lost (2004). “It was batshit crazy, yeah, but it worked on that level.”
So, just like the episodic television that has served him so well for decades, Chase added another installment to his personal saga this past week. On October 1, it was announced that he had inked an agreement with HBO parent company WarnerMedia for a five-year, first-look deal to develop content for HBO, HBO Max and Warner Bros. Pictures Group. So much for the extreme anger with HBO that’s been coursing through Chase’s veins.
Meanwhile, The Sopranos, available on HBO Max since its launch in May, 2020, has reportedly enjoyed a major resurgence in streaming popularity over the past year as a younger generation of viewers watched the series for the first time during the pandemic.
Chase has also confirmed that he would be interested in making another feature film focusing on the formative years and coming of age of Tony Soprano. His one condition, he stated, is that Sopranos executive producer and writer Terence Winter would have to be on board. Winter produced 73 of the show’s 85 installments and scripted some 25 of them, including the classic “Long Term Parking’ and “Pine Barrens” episodes, before going on the create the well-received series Boardwalk Empire and not-so-embraced Vinyl for HBO.
For his part, Winter has said, “The idea of doing another one, and doing it with David, I’d be in in a heartbeat. Absolutely.”
This means that two of the key creative forces in the Sopranos franchise are up for one more extended visit with Jersey’s always intriguing Soprano family (and affiliates).
Of course, Warner and New Line, the studios behind The Many Saints of Newark, will undoubtedly have something to say about it—after the box office and streaming results on Saints have been rung up. You don’t want to jump the gun on these guys because, like Tony Sopranos and his crew, they mean business.
Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site DiscDish.com.