(Originally an IP Movies Review)
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, so 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 was 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, mostly, the New York Mets baseball organization, but the New York Jets, New York Yankees, and the New York 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. Since then, 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. The focus of The Last Play at Shea, though, is mostly on one musician; a guy that is from the city, loves the city, and closed the ball park better than any other artist possibly could have: Billy Joel.
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, setting it all 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, which is why audiences of all backgrounds can enjoy this film. 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 the average Joe goes from nothing but a loving mother in the Bronx, makes it to Los Angeles, finds success, and 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, Shea Stadium.
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 Bill 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, which is rare when watching a documentary. 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, and the music not only enhances the story, but also becomes a necessary part of that story.
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 class, 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.