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In 'The Sopranos' prequel set in the '60s, James Gandolfini's son plays a young Tony

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The celebrated TV show "The Sopranos" finished its six-season run in 2007. James Gandolfini was at the heart of the series, playing mob boss Tony Soprano in the New Jersey suburbs.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SOPRANOS")

JAMES GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) It's good to be in something from the ground floor. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end.

SHAPIRO: When Gandolfini died in 2013, it seemed unlikely there would ever be a follow-up to the series. But today, a new movie is out that takes place in "The Sopranos" universe. "The Many Saints Of Newark" is set in the 1960s. The co-writer is the show's original creator, David Chase. It follows a powerful uncle of Tony Soprano named Dickie Moltisanti. The movie also features a young Tony Soprano played by Michael Gandolfini, James Gandolfini's son. Linda Holmes and the rest of the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour team spoke with critic Alan Sepinwall about this ambitious prequel.

ALAN SEPINWALL: I think the movie is really good. I don't think it's great. And I think one of the reasons why is something that Chase talked about with me for my reporting for Rolling Stone, which is he wanted this to be a movie. And in his mind, a movie is a thing that is two hours or less. And so he cut a lot of stuff out of it. And you can feel the absence of a lot of connective tissue and a lot of material.

And with some of the returning characters - even if they're played by new actors like Tony or Livia or Junior - you can sort of fill in the blanks yourselves because you know a lot about them. With Dickie, with Harold - the Leslie Odom character - with a number of others, they're kind of brand-new, and they're sort of driving a lot of the story. And the movie's skipping around a lot.

And so it feels shaggy. It feels like there's a 2-1/2 or 3-hour version of this that I think would be really fantastic. It's not quite what I would have necessarily hoped for, but I was still really, really satisfied with it.

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

J GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) When I was a kid, guys like me were brought up to follow codes.

MICHAEL GANDOLFINI: (As Tony Soprano) What'd you say?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What?

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: I do like the Michael Gandolfini performance, not just because he resembles his dad, even though he resembles his dad. I like the way that he's trying to lean into this idea that Tony is mostly not really interested in being a mob guy at that time. Like, he's trying to kind of see if he can figure out how to avoid that outcome for himself. Some of the playing of that story I like. But a lot of this - I couldn't get by some of the - those real cartoony parts really kept hanging me up.

SEPINWALL: I mean, the movie kind of runs into this challenge, which is Dickie is just not as compelling a character as Tony. And when Michael Gandolfini walks onto the screen in the second half of the movie, that's kind of all I wanted to see at that point. He's really, really good above and beyond the physical resemblance he has to his dad.

And so you have this kind of push-pull in those later scenes between we have to pay off the Dickie story and we have to resolve it because the movie is a Dickie Moltisanti movie. Like, Moltisanti is Italian for many saints. It's all his story.

And then you can sort of feel the filmmakers realizing, hey, wait a minute, like, look what Michael's giving us. We have to start leaning in towards that. They needed to sort of figure out the balance better or build out Dickie a little bit more to justify some of this even though I did ultimately wind up enjoying the movie, I think, more than anybody else on the panel did.

HOLMES: I want to ask you one more thing before we go, Alan, which is this - do you think that we are headed for a "Soprano" extended cinematic universe?

(LAUGHTER)

SEPINWALL: Well, when I talked to all the actors for the features I did for Rolling Stone, most of them seemed on board with that. And David Chase, when I asked him, he at first seemed kind of agnostic. And it seems like he's been pushed forward a little bit more and a little bit more. And I think ultimately, it's going to depend on how this movie is received.

The fact that it's another one of these day and date things that's in theaters and on HBO Max is probably going to muddy the waters because this was an HBO show to begin with. And I can see a lot of people, even COVID aside, saying, I'm going to watch this at home because that's how I watched "The Sopranos." And so I don't know what kind of response the movie is going to need to get to lead to more, but I certainly would not be shocked if there was more with some members of this cast.

HOLMES: All right. Well, Alan, I'm delighted that you once again are at the center of the cultural conversation...

(LAUGHTER)

HOLMES: ...As the man...

SEPINWALL: Yes.

HOLMES: ...Who is obsessed with "The Sopranos."

(LAUGHTER)

SEPINWALL: It keeps paying off.

SHAPIRO: Critic Alan Sepinwall talking with NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour about the movie "The Many Saints Of Newark." It's out in theaters and on HBO Max today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALABAMA 3 SONG, "WOKE UP THIS MORNING (THE SOPRANOS MIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.