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The Sopranos Sessions
The Celestine Prophecy. James Redfield. Total Recall. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
My Animals and Other Family. Clare Balding. We Need to Talk About. Kevin Bridges. Ayoade on Ayoade. Richard Ayoade. The Necessary Aptitude. Pam Ayres. Daniel Wallace. Moab Is My Washpot. Stephen Fry. He lives in Brooklyn. He lives in New Jersey. She lives in Baltimore with her husband, David Simon. I came too late for that, I know. But lately, I'm getting the feeling that I came in at the end.
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From its opening credits, through its introduction of its depressed gang-boss hero and his unflappable psychiatrist, to its unnervingly quiet closing song "The Beast in Me," The Sopranos entered with a swagger, upsetting expectations and telling you to brace yourself. The pilot episode of The Sopranos, created by TV veteran David Chase, aired on January 10, , with little advance fanfare outside the hermetically sealed world of TV critics who'd watched the pilot and the next three episodes on VHS tapes supplied by HBO the previous summer.
Despite collective bullish- ness, reviewers had a hard time persuading people that the show was significant. Skepticism was valid. Consider the cultural context. Not so much. Plus The Sopranos was about gangsters, and there'd been no shortage of gangster stories in preceding decades. The genre helped build commercial cinema, along with Westerns, musicals, and film noir, and kept producing popular and critical successes even as postwar movie attendance diminished.
That last one, a sprawling whack-fest set across Brooklyn and Long Island, was the most popular crime film yet by a master of the form, Martin Scorsese. Not only did it deal in some of the same notions as The Sopranos — mobsters posing as unremark- able suburbanites, and gangsterism as capitalism at its rawest — its style informed Chase's show, including nasty shocks balanced with jocular humor, and an eclectic musical sensibility that mixed opera, show tunes, pop, and rock including Muddy Waters' "Mannish Boy," an actual Goodfellas soundtrack cue.
Melfi herself, Lorraine Bracco. On top of all that, Scorsese regular Robert De Niro had just starred in a comedy called Analyze This, about a gangster in therapy.
It was set to open in March , less than three months after the Sopranos premiere, and trailers were already in theaters. Some writers generally assumed The Sopranos was a light comedy, too.
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Maybe it was the lingering whiff of the misfire My Blue Heaven, starring Steve Martin as a now-suburban mafioso in witness protection who can't give up his old ways. Maybe it was the title The Sopranos, which conjured prewar, whatsamatta-you Italians singing arias across red-checkered tablecloths.
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But these misconceptions hid unimaginably richer depths. Written and directed by Chase, the pilot is a hybrid slapstick comedy, domestic sitcom, and crime thriller, with dabs of '70s American New Wave grit.
It is high and low art, vulgar and sophisticated. It mixes disreputable spectacle casual nudity, gory executions, drugs, profanity, and retrograde sentiments with flourishes from postmodern novels, dialectical theater, and mid-century European art-house cinema. The series is sometimes as much about the relationship between art and its audience as it is about the world the artist depicts. This self-awareness gives the opening scene, where Tony stares up at the statue in Dr.
Melfi's office, another layer: this is a show that gives mass audiences the double-crosses and rubouts they expect from a Mob tale, but also psycho- therapy and dream analysis, economic and social satire, commentary on toxic masculinity and patriarchal oppression, and a rich intertextuality that positions The Sopranos against the histories of cinematic and real gangsters, Italian Americans, and America. The opening credits display this graceful interplay.
Which Sopranos Character Are You?
They seem straightforward enough: here is the hero, this is where he lives. But they do at least five more things that dispel expectations and prepare us for something beyond the gangster-film usual. Surprise 1: The man behind the wheel. If the overweight, balding, cigarsmoking driver who snatches a ticket from a toll booth is the show's protagonist and a Mafia boss and we quickly learn that he is , the actor looks more like a henchman — one who'd get beaten up by a much smaller hero or shot by his boss to prove his ruthlessness. Now universally recognized as the Sopranos theme, it was an unknown quantity in The song's rumbling bass line, warbling synthesizer effects, Leonard Cohen—esque vocals, and repetitive harmonica lament signal that this isn't the gangster story you're used to seeing.
Notwithstanding oddball outliers like King of New York, post gangster pictures were usually scored with sweeping orchestral compositions The Godfather, State of Grace, Miller's Crossing ; playlists of postwar pop, blues, and rock see any modern-day crime film by Scorsese , or some combination Donnie Brasco.
The pilot will use plenty of the second kind of music, but the present-tense newness of the A3 still throws the viewer off-balance. Surprise 3: The filmmaking. Shot by series cinematographer Alik Sakharov with a handheld 35mm camera, on a route roughed out on videotape by series locations manager Jason Minter, the sequence is an assemblage of "caught" footage, taken in New Jersey locations without permits and edited in a jagged, unpredictable way.
James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano)
Eschewing the uninteresting technique of always cutting on the beat, the sequence holds images for unpredictable durations. If you know the Lincoln Tunnel and gangster movies, you'll be surprised when the light at the end of that tunnel coalesces to reveal Jersey instead of New York — not what's supposed to happen. East Coast movie gangsters only go to Jersey when going on the lam or dumping a corpse.
East Coast gangster stories might move to Brooklyn, where the mid-level crooks live in duplexes with their aging mothers, or farther east to Long Island, where the bosses of bosses and Jay Gatsby buy palatial estates, but in Big Apple Mob films that's usually it. If the story travels farther, it'll probably beeline west to Chicago historically the second most popular location for gangster movies , Las Vegas, Reno, or Los Angeles.
But a lot of it is just David Chase discussing his own creative instincts and how much comes from his gut, and I think that became a lot more interesting than the nerdy stuff I was focused on when we started.
There are some almost lyrical reminiscences in those parts of the interview. Who is a creative person not a writer who has influenced you and your work? He psychoanalyzes me with a lot of literary references and scraps of poetry. He currently teaches math somewhere in New Jersey. Insert whatever mind-blown GIF you want. And somehow I made a whole career of that. This interview has been condensed and edited.
Follow John Williams on Twitter: johnwilliamsnyt. Abrams Press.
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