Tribeca Festival premieres HBO-bound ‘Sopranos’ documentary

by STEPHEN WHITTY
sopranos tribeca

JASON MENDEZ/GETTY IMAGES FOR TRIBECA FESTIVAL

Discussing “The Sopranos” at The Beacon Theatre in New York on June 13 were, from left, Alex Gibney, David Chase, Terence Winter, Matthew Weiner, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Drea de Matteo, Aida Turturro and Steve Schirripa.

“Lately,” Tony Soprano once lamented, “I’m getting the feeling that I came in at the end. The best is over.”

Diehard fans of the “The Sopranos” who saw the series’ last episode, back in 2007, might have agreed that the best was over, at least as far as epic, premium-cable gangster shows were concerned. But that cut-to-black finale left quite a few also feeling that, somehow, this time they’d come in at the beginning.

Or, at least, the middle.

So was Tony dead, shot by that guy in the Members Only jacket? Was he alive, but now condemned to spend the rest of his life looking over his shoulder? Or was this just cranky creator David Chase’s way of saying get-the-hell-outta-here you people, I’m tired, the story’s done?

Actually, all interpretations are valid. Chase sure isn’t going to tell you the “right” one. (Although he may hint.)

And it’s largely that ambiguity — not so much the events onscreen as the space around them — that made “The Sopranos” an enduring classic. And brought Chase and many of his stars to The Beacon Theatre in New York on June 13, to premiere “Wise Guy: David Chase and The Sopranos,” a documentary from filmmaker Alex Gibney commemorating the show’s 25th anniversary.

It was a special presentation of the Tribeca Festival, and tickets started at $76.75 and went up to $255, per pair, including fees. After the screening, Gibney moderated a conversation with many of the show’s performers, including Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli, Aida Turturro, Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Drea De Matteo. (A second screening will be held June 15 at 2 p.m. at the SVA Theatre, with single tickets priced at $28; visit tribecafilm.com/festival.)

The film, which will air later on HBO, goes beyond a simple compilation of the show’s greatest hits (and greatest “hits”) or even a fan-friendly compilation of backstage jokes and bloopers. Instead, it explores tougher territory — how much of the show was really about Chase’s own relationship with an angry and demanding mother, how close at times he — and his star, the late James Gandolfini — used Tony Soprano to explore their own dark urges.

Director Alex Gibney, left, interviews David Chase in “Wise Guy: David Chase and The Sopranos.”

Immediately bringing home that point? Gibney conducts his feature-length, on-camera interview of Chase on a replica of Dr. Melfi’s office, probing his guilt and shame and memories almost as relentlessly as she picked at Tony’s.

“I said I’d be a part of this ‘Sopranos’ documentary,” Chase says glumly, early on. “I didn’t know it was going to be about me.”

But Gibney’s point is that, in a work as personal as this, there is often a thin line separating the artist from the art — an idea hammered home during his own film’s credit sequence. Tony’s famous drive home to the Jersey suburbs is perfectly replicated, the threatening “Woke Up This Morning” playing underneath. But this time, clever editing puts Chase in the passenger seat. He’s along for the ride, even if it is his devilish alter ego doing the driving.

That sort of pop psychology can only go so far. Although he, too, is the product of the Jersey suburbs and an unhappy home, unlike Tony Soprano, Chase actually did more than a semester and a half of college. In fact he went to several schools, ending up getting a Master’s at Stanford, and picking up a love of foreign auteurs like Bergman, Fellini and Polanski. He also, unlike Tony, never whacked anyone. At least, not that he’s copping to.

He did, though, make at least one awful student film (about, interestingly enough, old-time gangsters). He wrote a gleefully exploitive horror picture, “Grave of the Vampire.” And he eventually gravitated towards TV, turning out scripts for some still fondly remembered series — “The Rockford Files,” “I’ll Fly Away,” “Northern Exposure.”

He still yearned to make movies, though, and wrote a script for one that he hoped would co-star Robert De Niro as a gangster and Anne Bancroft as his therapist. That never got made. But then he retooled it as a pilot for a TV series. And after none of the networks would touch it, he took it to HBO, which was beginning — with “The Larry Sanders Show,” and “Oz” — to move beyond just this weird cable channel that showed boxing and “Beastmaster.”

James Gandolfini in “The Sopranos.”

At this point we get to watch the show come together, and it’s enormously entertaining. There are grainy audition tapes of baby-faced actors, all trying out to be Christopher or Tony or Carmela (and, popping up along them, the performers who eventually nabbed the parts). There are tantalizing suggestions of directions not taken. Lorraine Bracco, for example, was originally approached to play Carmela (she felt she’d already done the mob-wife thing in “Goodfellas”; she insisted on playing Dr. Melfi). Chase wanted Stevie Van Zandt to play Tony (HBO balked at having a non-actor anchor their expensive new series; Chase wrote Silvio just for him).

Less entertaining is watching the show pull apart. Chase could be as controlling as Tony and, in his own way, similarly ruthless; writers talk about being summarily fired for transgressions as small as interrupting him. HBO could be cold, too; Chase said the strategy of having a Season 6A and Season 6B was simply so they could legally avoid paying actors the big salary bump that would have come with a genuine Season 7. And if Chase’s moodiness always hung over the production like a dark cloud, by the end there are flashes of Gandolfini’s pain as well; playing the often rage-fueled Tony took the actor down some dark places, and climbing out again wasn’t always easy.

Not everyone always liked the show. HBO was absolutely opposed to having Tony kill someone onscreen in the early episode in which he took Meadow on a college tour; people won’t watch a show about a murderer, they insisted. (They were wrong.) Later, as the show sometimes slipped into the surreal, more than a few fans grumbled that they wanted less acting, more whacking. And Martin Scorsese — whose “Goodfellas” had definitely contributed some ideas, as well as a number of actors, to the project — “doesn’t like the show,” Chase says, explaining that the suburban setting threw the New Yorker off. “I don’t get it,” he quotes the director as complaining. “There are all these trees …”

Dominic Chianese in “The Sopranos.”

But millions of people did get it, as evidenced by the crowd who showed up for this premiere. And who erupted in a cheering, standing ovation when the film ended and the curtain parted to reveal Gibney, Chase and a dozen of the show’s actors, including Steve Buscemi and a frail but still proud Dominic Chianese, 93. (While Chianese was the oldest former cast member onstage, no one seemed happier than the youngest, Robert Iler, 39, who blurted, “Most of my friends are going to shitty high-school reunions, and I get to go to this.”)

Oddly, the reunion turned out to be the least satisfying part of the evening. There were too many people onstage to allow for any real back-and-forth, and although Gibney is fine filmmaker, his questions were on the dull, movie-junket order of “What drew you to this part?” (It certainly didn’t help that he mispronounced some of his Italian-American guests’ names, including Aida Turturro and Annabella Sciorra, both of whom corrected him — Sciorra a little pointedly.)

But even if they weren’t always thrilled with their interviewer, it was clear that they were still proud of their work on the show, protective of the memory of the late Gandolfini, and happy to relive those years now, onstage.

“It was home,” said Sigler, who literally grew up on the show. “A lot of life happened in those 10 years and no matter what happened, that set was home, and the people up here were home, and accepted and loved you no matter what.”

Because, in the end, the show wasn’t just about The Family. It was also about the family.

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