“Woke up this mornin’, got yourself a gun. Your mama always said you’d be the chosen one.”
These lyrics were what was heard with each episode of The Sopranos, from the pilot in 1999 to the climatic finale which drew the show to a conclusion eight years later.
And now Alabama 3’s soulful beats are set to be heard on the screen once again, as it turns out that not only was Woke Up This Morning a memorable opening credits tune, but a prophecy of what The Sopranos would become.
It was a hit with both critics and audiences, often helmed as the best television show ever made, a game-changer for the small screen. So, in other words, “the chosen one” and “one in a million”.
Given the indelible legacy of the show, cries for more have been matched with calls for it to be left untouched.
But the time to return to that world has arrived.
Hitting cinemas this week, Many Saints Of Newark acts as a prequel for the show, and a look at the formative years of none other than Tony Soprano, played here by Michael Gandolfini, son of the late James.
As the film’s director Alan Taylor told us in an interview, Michael coming on board “made it feel right for everybody involved”, the blessing that perhaps some were looking for given the pressure of following on from such an impactful show.
The decision to step into his father’s shoes was difficult for Michael, and also for Alan and creator/writer David Chase, who wanted to ensure they got the casting of a young Tony right.
However, although they did look at other actors, there was just something about Michael, as Alan explains: “He was always an idea, so we said ‘right, let’s try it and ask him to audition’. It was a very tough thing to do, and I know now his initial reaction was ‘hell no’. But by the time he auditioned, he had decided he wanted to do it, and he was really good. You could see so much of his father in him.
“It made a difference too. We all had dinner together before we started shooting, he stood up and thanked everyone for the opportunity to say hello and goodbye to his father again.
“He made it clear that this was something that was emotionally right for him, and became the heart of the movie.”
Whilst Michael was integral to the heart of the movie, both on screen and on the set, it is important to remember that The Many Saints Of Newark isn’t just Tony Soprano’s story.
It is also about the rest of the DiMeo crime family, looking at not only their impact on a young Tony, but also their increasingly fragile hold over a tumultuous city in the time of the Newark riots.
It’s an interesting era to set a Sopranos story in, given that the show is famous for its contemporary style, presenting a challenge to the filmmakers who had to calculate how to bring the show’s modern tone and themes into this period setting.
Alan elaborated: “The question was how do you take this thing that has lived on television as a contemporary story, and put it on the big screen, make it period, and yet carry over what we love about The Sopranos?
“One of my favourite lines from the show is Tony saying that he feels like he has come in at the end of something, that decline was key to The Sopranos.
“But we were going back to the golden age of gangsters, the past that is romanticised in the show. The suits were cooler, the cars were cooler, it was before the RICO Act.
“It was a very glamourous period, and we had to think about how we could bring in those tragic and absurd parts of the show into this setting. The balance, humour and petty vicious behaviour had to be the same.”
As Alan notes, with the story taking place throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the setting is indeed more chic, with our gangsters driving round in gorgeous cars, wearing flashy suits to match.
However, whilst the backdrop is very different to what we saw in the show, the story isn’t, bringing out the tragic, absurd and violent elements which the series is partly known for.
Characterisation was key to achieving this balance, with much work being done to ensure the new members of the DiMeo family would continue the legacy of the show.
These newbies not only had to stand out for themselves, but within them we also had to see the roots of storylines and characterisation that featured in The Sopranos. As the poster of The Many Saints Of Newark asks, ‘who made Tony Soprano?’
The lead new character is Dickie Moltisanti, father of Christopher and influential uncle of Tony. Beautifully played by Alessandro Nivola, underneath Dickie’s impeccable suit and calm presence is a crumbling man struggling with the weight of both his personal and professional responsibilities – so, very much like Tony in The Sopranos.
Although he may appear to have it all, the truth couldn’t be further from that. His family’s control of Newark is shaking, especially after civil unrest causes growing resentment in Harold McBrayer, one of Dickie’s associates who becomes tired of Italian-American rule.
Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. plays Harold, arguably the first lead black character in the world of The Sopranos.
During an interview Leslie explained to us why this was important to him: “I was thinking about the show – the way it begins is this thesis of a mobster who goes to a therapist, trying to get back to the beginning to understand who he is.
“Because that is the focus on Tony, I thought that all the characters in this world have to be psychologically interesting and rich enough that you would want to see any of them on the couch with Melfi.
“So, I wanted to bring my own contribution. I wanted to help David [Chase] introduce a character into the mythology who is black, who has his own agency, and who has complications that might raise questions and get people to wonder about his own origins.”
Harold’s story and agency in the film are significantly shaped by the impact of the Newark riots, which increases racial divides in the city.
With the film being written and directed by Taylor, Chase and Lawrence Konner, all of whom are white, Leslie was given the time and space to ensure Harold’s story was right.
He added: “It was this very strange place as a performer. David’s writing is specific enough that you aren’t adrift, but it’s also open enough to bring in your own interpretation, colour it in the way you see fit.
“So, I thought about my grandfather, a man I knew very well who also migrated from the south to the north for similar reasons to Harold. I thought about him a lot with the character.”
It’s not just Harold who causes problems for Dickie though, as he also has to face his father – ‘Hollywood Dick’. A mobster who used to hoodwink celebrities, giving him his nickname, Dick now takes a less active role in the family, although it’s safe to say he still has his fingers in plenty of pies.
Hollywood Dick needed to be played by someone with both charisma and an edge, and who better than the legendary Ray Liotta, best known for playing Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
As Ray revealed to us though, he initially wasn’t considered for the part: “I’ve always admired David Chase, even though I wasn’t a big watcher of the show. He’s just so good and when I met him he’s just a really intense guy, which I liked.
“So, when this came along, they didn’t actually want to see me. I said though, ‘I’ll go, I’ll fly myself there’, I just wanted to sit in front of them. Luckily after the lunch I had with David and Alan, they said yes. I got lucky.”
Interestingly, whilst Ray wasn’t originally considered to play Hollywood Dick, he had been approached by Chase before during the early seasons of The Sopranos.
The writer has reached out to him about the part of Ralphie Cifaretto (who would be portrayed by Joe Pantoliano), but Ray declined, wanting to avoid being typecast.
He added: “I didn’t feel it was the right fit for me, and it wasn’t the right timing too. But this was. Goodfellas was probably about 15 years ago [it’s actually 30 years, Ray admits himself he isn’t the best with dates] and I was just ready to do it all again.”
The casting of the legendary Ray Liotta wasn’t just exciting for audiences though, as many of his fellow actors in the film were ecstatic too.
One of which was Michela De Rossi (who plays Hollywood Dick’s new wife Giuseppina) as she tells us: “I grew up with Goodfellas and when I was with Ray, I was acting as a professional but also watching him as a fan. I wanted to discover the way he acts. It’s been an exchange of doing my job, and learning.”
Making her American feature debut, Michela found that she related a lot to her character Giuseppina who was new in the country too, with Hollywood Dick flying her over from Italy: “It was my first time out of Europe, my first time in America. I used that for the character, using my emotions and translating them for her.”
Although America was new to Michela, the show wasn’t. In Italy The Sopranos has quite the reputation, with Michela describing it as “the Hamlet of television”, also impressing us with the fact she binge watched all 86 episodes in only three weeks.
Michela was very aware of the pressure that was on them and the movie, as was the rest of the cast and crew.
In our chat, director Alan described this pressure as “intimidating”, especially given that he has felt the wrath of dedicated fan bases before (he helmed the much maligned Thor: The Dark World and Terminator: Genisys).
However, having directed several episodes of The Sopranos, the choice to take on the opportunity was an easy one to make: “This was the hardest job I’ve ever done, but it felt like the right place to go.
“It had been such a long time since I worked on the show, and in the interim I had gone off and had all kinds of other director experiences. In a way some of them were quite positive, and others were just brutal.
“So, coming back to The Sopranos felt like coming home. I was very grateful to go into a world I felt at home in.”
And Alan won’t be the only one who will feel this way. As soon as fans see The Many Saints Of Newark, they’ll feel like they’ve returned home too.
The Many Saints Of Newark will be in cinemas from 22nd September.