I am not, nor ever have been, a New Yorker. I’m a hockey and football fanatic that only watches baseball when the Detroit Tigers are playing. I know of Billy Joel but wasn’t old enough to appreciate his heyday in the 1980s; thus I have never been a huge fan. My parents were still young kids, riding bikes to each other’s houses, when The Beatles performed at Shea in 1965 (but my dad still loved them, which transferred down to me). Even with all these factors against it, The Last Play at Shea is still a beautifully orchestrated documentary about Billy Joel, Shea Stadium, and the New York Mets that manages to captivate even my outsider sensibilities.
Destruction of the legendary Shea Stadium in Queens, New York began in October of 2008, nearly 47 years after Robert Moses, the New York city-planner, broke ground on the stadium in 1961. The arena housed the Mets but the Jets, Yankees, and the Giants all played at least one season in the stadium. Outside of hosting sporting events, Shea Stadium became the stadium to play at after The Beatles record-setting performance that opened their 1965 North American tour. Janis Joplin, Paul Simon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Bruce Springsteen, Jethro Tull, The Who, The Clash, R.E.M., The Police, Elton John, and even Pope John Paul II have all been guests at Shea Stadium since that point. The focus of The Last Play at Shea is mostly on Billy Joel: a guy that is from the city, loves the city, and closed the ballpark better than any other artist possibly could have.
Director Paul Crowder tells the story of this “ugly beautiful” stadium, as well as the history of Billy Joel, through interviews and old television footage. Set against the backdrop of Joel’s own music from the last concert played at the stadium, Crowder does a stellar job of getting to the heart of the story quickly. Coming in I couldn’t tell the first thing about Billy Joel or Shea Stadium (other than he sings “Piano Man”, and it houses the Mets), but Crowder is a talented enough documentary filmmaker that my ignorance on the subject doesn’t matter, and he hooked me after about ten minutes.
Lying just beneath the surface on The Last Play at Shea is the story of how an average Joe goes from nothing but a loving mother in the Bronx to success in Los Angeles, then comes back to his roots in the city that made him. Anyone who has dreamed of going back home again can relate to this story, which is where Crowder finds success in his storytelling. This is the American dream incarnate, set inside one of the most blue-collar ballparks in the country.
The most impressive feature of this film, aside from the wonderful storytelling, is how well Paul Crowder and co-editor Mike J. Nichols have spliced the film together. Crowder puts together footage from the final concert, the final baseball game at the stadium, interviews from famous baseball players and musicians, classic baseball games (including the infamous Buckner blunder in the 1986 World Series), and other various concerts and footage from the New York City area. The two edit together these pieces quite well, making the seemingly unrelated feel essential to each other. For those who don’t know what happened during that final concert at Shea the movie builds to a surprising, exciting climax that managed to leave me with goosebumps. The best aspect of the editing, though, is how well the men were able to set everything to Billy Joel’s music. They make it flow perfectly. The music not only enhances the story, but also becomes a necessary part of it.
The Last Play at Shea is one of the better documentaries I have seen. It does not just give an interesting and informative look at New York City, Billy Joel, and Shea Stadium, but can captivate and inspire its viewers. This is a love letter to the blue-collar working man and Billy Joel fans everywhere. New Yorkers will feel a special kind of connection to the material, I am sure, but the rest of us can enjoy The Last Play at Shea just as easily. Paul Crowder has hit this documentary out of the ballpark.
This DVD is presented in a 16×9 widescreen presentation, with a 1.78:1 contrast ratio. There are no visual hiccups in the DVD, and the use of color during the Billy Joel concert footage looks especially nice. There is a lot of raw footage from the 70s, 80s, and 90s, and though the footage has grain, it works with the overall feel of the film. The English 5.1 Dolby Digital Audio option sounds great, and Billy Joel’s excellent music sounds as expected on a surround sound system. Whenever someone begins to speak, the background music lowers, and the interviewee’s voice comes in loud and clear. There are English and Spanish subtitle options.
Billy Joel’s Front Row Ticket Santa (1:29): Billy Joel talks about how he sends out his crew to find people in the cheapest seats in the house and brings them to the front row. This is a great thing for Joel to do, and though this is short, it has an Elton John reference that is hilarious. Not sure why this was edited out of the final footage, but I’m glad it was put into the deleted scenes.
Interview with Chuck Klosterman (4:52): This is an interview with eccentric pop culture essayist Chuck Klosterman. He tells, in a very round about way, why he feels that Billy Joel is one the better musicians playing (or maybe he isn’t, it’s hard to tell). Klosterman is knowledgeable and fun to watch. This is a solid interview, even with the flighty style that Klosterman manages.
More From Lionsgate (4:40): Trailers for Buried (1:11), The U.S. vs. John Lennon (2:11), and Being Mick (1:18).
The Last Play at Shea is an excellent documentary that has enough diversity for almost anyone to connect with. The DVD has slim pickings when it comes to extras, but this is one where the quality of the film outshines the DVDs lack of special features. Billy Joel and New York Mets fans will undoubtedly have the strongest reaction from the film, but anyone interested in New York City, the American dream, or rock and roll will want to put The Last Play at Shea on their must-see lists.
Newmarket Films and Lionsgate presents The Last Play at Shea. Directed by: Paul Crowder. Starring: Billy Joel, Alec Baldwin (voice), Paul McCartney, and Mike Piazza. Written by: Mark Monroe. Running time: 96 minutes. Rating: Not Rated. Released on DVD: February 8, 2011.