Talking Heads has NEVER struck me as a feature of a Bond Film, the cod lines opening with “Ahhh Mr Bond ...”, and the classic “ Bond, . . James Bond “, then Germanic accented villains, boastful spilling the plot with what conversation there is, usually staccato, clipped, and tinged with English sarcastic upper crustiness. As for Psycho Killers, yeah there’s been more than a few over the franchise’s years, including 007, ‘license to kill’ a real live psycho killer?.
Thursday saw the start of the new Bond film’s National release, Daniel Craig’s last turn. With AstraZeneca saving the empire, and the Army saving the motorists at the pump, what is there left for Bond to do? Well save British Cinema, apparently. Friday saw me at Toon Traveller’s nearest Multiplex, ideal for rain storm sheltering and testing the hype. Bond ?? No Time To Die quest que c’est? Well not for me, and looking at a semi-deserted concourse, there were all too few wanting to believe the hype. Me? I was there for a taste of a family of Psycho Killers’ the Sopranos. The family ’s 60s roots in ‘The Many Saints of Newark’. A prequel to the acclaimed TV show, and a brutal one at that.
The Many Saints of Newark was, as expected, the usual mafia gangster chic movie, with all the lingering shots of food, feasts, families and frailties exposed in a middle class suburban, middle-size housed, double garaged, homes of middle ranking made, and soon to be dead, Mafiosi men. There’s the usual funeral pyre of bosses and underbosses, open coffins, priests, piety, and pretence. In reality it’s business as usual, in the church, the funeral parlour, and it’s ante-rooms. Business is agreed, and planned scores settled, hits planned, and positions jockeyed for. There’s brutal outbursts, TVs smashed, calls for respect and tradition in a world starting to break apart with ‘nam fall out, drugs, dudes, and hits multiplying, as ghetto control and easy money slide into other hands.
Yeah there’s a psycho on the loose… Won’t even say who. You’ll see. Some of this could be out takes, or at least pastiches of “Once upon Time in America”, table top torture, or plot steals from “Mean Streets”, the low level Capo with a moral conscious trying to do good, and the voice and guiding hand of an elderly Mafiosi imprisoned but still in the know. There’s the use of public phones, taken from my student days, and of course pious fake moralising over drugs from “Wise Guys''. No matter, some of THOSE films had similar scenes from elsewhere, including Laurel and Hardy. It’s familiar, and all the better for giving the audience (that’s me) what they expect.
That said, the whole concept is easy to buy into. Not for nothing was the The Sopranos, the story of Mafia, murder, morality, and psychoanalysis - destination viewing, watercooler chewed over, praised and regaled television series. The film is sold as ‘Tony Soprano’ - The formative years``. It does cover Tony’s childhood, his, in two periods, passive observer in early years, but starting to understand, and hints at seeing and understanding beyond his years. Then pre-University year, high school, numbers rackets, exam fraud, expulsion, smoking, underage drinking, nothing more than run-of-the-mill juvenile delinquency but hints at something darker. The only hint of mental health, a strong suit in the hit series, for young ‘Tony’ - school tests, with high intelligence, and psychometric scores hinting at leadership, and fears of isolation, perhaps the roots of Tony’s latter ‘issues’ as a Mafia family head.
The whole thing is set against the late 60s souring of the American dream, the rise of African American gangs, and Black Power translating into a rising confident, savvy, exploitative and equally brutal gang leaders and killers, taking on the ‘Eye - taliee -ans’ at their own game. The race issues are as you’d expect all too similar to the usual mafia fare, and reflect, according contemporary accounts, social and racial attitudes at the time, no liberal attitudes here, simply choose who you’re exploiting and never give the enemy an even break.
This inclusion of these issues provides a background for some really wonderful music, both incidental, live clubs, and references, thankfully it’s not all old Italian polka and similar music,
One music scene lives in the memory , when Tony’s uncle the debonair and troubled ‘Dickie’, the family head, visits the film’s moral voice, the consciousness, albeit jaded, a self confessed murderer, ‘Sally Moltisanti’, (Ray Loitta ) asks ‘Dickie’ for “The Birth of Cool” saying he’s a jazz nut. Of course the world, and Miles had moved on, but the old murderer and his 50’s morality, hadn’t.
The film is punctuated by family on family violence, against the rising challenge of the black gangs in Newark, alliances shift, and the street level pawns in a bigger game, illegal numbers runners killed. Staged shoot outs, shop door killings, with bodies bloodied and dead, coiffured and coffined, pass through the maturing Tony’s life. If styled violence, pump shotguns blasting, and close up pistol back of the heads shots tell a story, this is for you. Insightful, thoughtful, introspection is non-existent.
Throughout the film there’s big cars, big suits, big pocket bankrolls and big guns, and little morality, concern, or thought for anyone outside the ‘family’. There’s a few moments of humour, the Young Tony stealing an ice cream van, a senior Soprano, back injured unable to have sex, but these apart it’s a bleak film told against a time of social change that spills over into the whole nature of ‘the mafia family’ with their in-house feuds, and the bloody consequences.
One telling moment, highlighted in the film (NO spoiler on this) deliberately sets a note as a decisive moment in youthful ‘Tony’s’ life, a die is cast, and the rest - - if not history, is the lead to a massive TV series.
One unusual aspect to the film, in the TV series, the lead character - Tony Soprano is played by the dearly departed James Gandolfini. In this film, the youthful Tony is played by Michael Gandolfini, James’ actual son. Unsure whether that adds or detracts from the film, but he does play the, at times confused innocent, at others, knowingly trying to get in on more than he should youth at the start of his life’s path, really well. This film captures Tony’s slide into the man that would become Tony Soprano.
Is it a better pick than Bond on a wet weekend in Newcastle? No idea. Not seen “No Time To Die”, but in this film you are left with the impression, for the gunmen and psycho killers of the Sopranos, it was their time to die, so that Tony could fulfil his destiny, lead the crime family, make a psychiatrist rich, and produce a critically acclaimed, top rated TV series.