The long-awaited arrival of The Sopranos’ prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, has got fans of the mob epic excited, but anxious too. Can it live up to the nearly mythical status the six-season saga has in our heads? Will James Gandolfini’s son Michael, playing a young Tony, do justice to the character and all his contradictions?
Setting the template for the reams of so-called prestige TV that followed it, The Sopranos has been endlessly celebrated for its unforgettable cast, masterful dialogue, astute political and cultural commentary, absorbing storytelling, nuanced morality and attention to detail (the FBI even recorded real-life mobsters chatting about the show and whether the writers had an inside man).
Telling the story of the Soprano family’s triumphs, losses, disputes, romances, grievances and mid-life crises, it’s equal parts crime drama, soap opera, psychological thriller and dark comedy – a tale of the end of the 20th century and the arrival of the 21st, and the breakdown of institutions: be it the family, the church, the state or the mafia.
Alongside its impeccable script, gripping acting and transcendent themes, it was The Sopranos’ effortlessly brilliant use of music that really brought the series’ emotional heft home. From its thrilling season openings to its mesmerising end credit sequences, the music of The Sopranos reflected the personal tastes of its New Jersey baby boomer subjects, the characters’ inner lives and the cultural landscape of contemporary America.
Personally selected by showrunner David Chase (with some input from colleagues including Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band, who played Silvio Dante) the interplay between the soundtrack and the events on screen is magical. Here are just seven of our favourite scenes (and we’ve not even included Van Morrison, The Police or Frank Sinatra…).
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Season 1, Episode 7 – Jefferson Airplane ‘White Rabbit’
Tony’s struggling to control his son’s behaviour, meanwhile his own mood is all over the place. He swallows a dose of Prozac (the episode title is Down Neck) and his mind drifts back to childhood, as we hear the psychedelic echoes of Jefferson Airplane: ‘One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, and the ones that Mother gives you, don't do anything at all..’
White Rabbit came out in 1967, and that’s the decade Tony returns to, where we see his formative experiences: his mum’s racism, her coldness, his parents arguing, and his idolisation of his dad – who he watches dole out a vicious beating to a guy who owes him money.
Playing brilliantly on the idea that each of us is haunted by hallucinogenic memories of our past selves, the song perfectly underscores the episode’s themes of destiny and inheritance. It’s heard again at the end, during a tender moment between Tony and AJ, showing Tony’s desire to give his son a different life.
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Season 2, Episode 4 – Madreblu ‘Certamente’
Easily one of the show’s most memorable and hilarious episodes (mostly thanks to Paulie’s child-like fascination with Italian culture), Commendatori sees the mobsters travel to Italy to strike a deal with their cousins ‘on the other side’.
While there, one of the most consequential story arcs begins, when Chrissy takes heroin. Slumped in his hotel room, we hear this ephemeral, melancholy Italian trip-hop track about longing and loss play. The episode foreshadows his descent into addiction.
Returning to America, he’s forced to pick up presents in duty free after spending the whole trip strung out – relatable!
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Season 3, Episode 9 – Ben E. King ‘I (Who Have Nothing)’
Romance, in all its guises, is the central theme of this episode, be it Meadow and Jackie Jr. (surely the show’s most detestable character), Tony cheating on Carmela with Gloria Trillo, and AJ’s hysterically misguided attempt to buy his mum a birthday present – a DVD of The Matrix (starring none other than Joe Pantoliano aka Ralph Cifaretto). “I was gonna wrap it, but it’s wasteful to the environment.”
All the way through, the mobsters try and excuse their shitty behaviour with expensive presents: Tony gives Carmela a huge Sapphire ring for her birthday, and bribes Dr. Melfi after she clocks he’s sleeping with her suicidal patient Gloria (who she knows he’ll eventually abandon). Chrissy buys Adrianna a nightclub, which he’ll end up treating as his own. It’s against this backdrop that the dramatic song choice for the closing credits, in an episode exploring its characters’ empty materialism and toxic masculinity, works so well.
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Season 4, Episode 1 – Time Zone, Afrika Bambaataa and John Lydon ‘World Destruction’
Carmela approvingly reads out a story from the New York Times about the Italian courts declaring bribery legal. Tony stumbles down the driveway half awake, wrapped in his bathrobe. Blasting over the top, Afrika Bambaataa commands us to “Speak about destruction!” before John Lydon leers: “This is a world destruction, your life ain't nothing, the human race is becoming a disgrace. The rich get richer, the poor are getting poorer. Fascist, chauvinistic government fools.” Tony picks up the paper, flicks through the news without reading it, and then settles on the sports pages.
In what might be the greatest use of music in film or TV ever, David Chase opens the first episode of The Sopranos to air after 9/11 – one year on, and with the War on Terror raging – with this vicious indictment of American complacency and Western supremacism. It was a watershed moment in society, as the old certainties of the 20th century began to fall away, and paranoia set in – while the power of the mafia was slowly waning.
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Season 5, Episode 7 – The Clash ‘Rock the Casbah’
One of the show’s many great car scenes (honourable mentions go to Tony singing Steely Dan’s ‘Dirty Work’, Tony fighting off two would-be assassins while driving, and Chrissy’s demise), it’s also an example of the deft editing that made so many moments in The Sopranos remarkable (this episode was directed by Steve Buscemi).
Tony is busy vibing to The Clash’s ‘Rock the Casbah’ in his truck (released when he was 23) when he spots Phil Leotardo, who owes him money. Phil speeds off, and Tony gives chase with The Clash still blaring, veering through oncoming traffic. Phil chucks his ice cream out the window Mario Kart style to concentrate on his escape, but still ends up crashing. A very funny scene. Oh, and the song is surely a tongue in cheek reference to the Soprano crew’s nickname for Phil – The Shah of Iran.
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Season 5, Episode 10 – The Kinks ‘I’m Not Like Everybody Else’
The Sopranos siblings’ furious temper gets the better of them again. Tony explodes in the Bing when bartender Georgie makes one of his trademark dipshit observations, beating him so badly he ends up half-deaf and quitting. Meanwhile Janice loses it at a school football game, swinging for another mum and getting arrested for assault.
That lands her in anger management, and when Tony comes round for dinner he’s shocked by his sister’s newly serene attitude. That’s when we see Tony’s vindictive nature – unable to watch someone else control their temper, he winds her up about her estranged, homeless son until she flips. As he strolls out the house, a broad smile on his face, The Kinks starts playing: “I don't want to live my life like everybody else, and I won't say that I feel fine like everybody else.” Tony’s at his happiest when he’s hated, a mark – he thinks – of his authenticity.
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Season 6, Episode 14 – John Cooper Clarke ‘Evidently Chickentown’
It’s his dead brother Billy’s birthday, and Phil Leotardo is pissed. After putting Billy’s ashes above the bar where he used to sit, Phil delivers a speech about how his family’s original Italian name, Leonardo, was corrupted at Ellis Island into Leotardo – a humiliation he’s still bitter about.
Sitting down next to his underboss Butchie, he mutters that he still wants revenge against Tony for Billy’s murder, yet another humiliation in a long line of perceived slights. As he utters the ominous line “No more Butchie, no more of this” the venomous voice of John Cooper Clarke fades in.
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Words: Alex McFadyen