Wednesday, 23 March 2011
The Last Play at Shea
By Alan Bacchus
It was such a surprise to see how terrific this film is. It’s a straight-to-video release presumably timed to coincide with baseball spring training fever, which has just begun. With this clever and surprisingly insightful documentary, we get to experience the significant pop culture events that surrounded the famed (and infamous) Shea Stadium in Queens, New York—home of The New York Mets.
In 2010, the stadium was demolished to make way for a brand-spanking new facility, a dramatic leap in comfort compared to aging old Shea. After the final baseball game, fans were treated to a farewell concert from Billy Joel, a Long Islander, whose career seemed to mirror that of Shea itself. Directors Crowder and Small cleverly intercut footage from Joel’s concert with the history of the revered facility, and as a surprisingly profound bonus, the career of Joel himself, which seems inextricably linked to Shea.
Filling in the gaps is narrator Alec Baldwin (yep, another Long Islander). His smooth voice is the perfect choice to give us the omniscient historical information about the Stadium and its relationship to the city of New York.
I have no connection to New York, but I am a sports fan and at one time I was a die-hard baseball fan. And so when Crowder and Small relive the key events of Shea, we get to experience some of the most dramatic moments in baseball history again. There are those first few years when the team was the worst in baseball history, losing 100+ games five years straight. Then they miraculously won the pennant and the World Series in 1969 with some supernatural help from a random black cat that ran onto the field and in front of the rival Dodgers’ dugout. There’s also the glorious 80s featuring that great team of Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, Gary Carter, et al, and that dramatic victory over Bill Buckner and the Red Sox. If the film stopped there, we’d have a great sports documentary worthy of HBO’s sports series or ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.
Equal to the baseball dramatics is Shea’s significance as a concert hall and the site of that legendary Beatles performance in 1964, which signalled both the birth of Beatlemania in the United States and the introduction of the stadium to the world. Outside of the U.S., Shea became synonymous with The Beatles and was thus in demand by the biggest bands in the world for their concerts. Footage of The Beatles, The Police, and of course Joel himself is thrilling to watch.
Again, if the film ended here, Crowder and Small would have had a terrific documentary on their hands. The third through line involves the storied career of Billy Joel himself, from his humble beginnings in a hard rock band to his management troubles, his hiatus and his reinvention as a solo artist. Crowder and Small don't settle for periphery information or B-plots to cut away to, they dig deep into Joel’s personal life, including the career victories and setbacks that make up this fascinating artist. It doesn’t hurt to have Christie Brinkley’s full participation. Egads, even in her 50s she’s still a stunning beauty. And thankfully for Joel, she’s still on good terms with him and a key person in his life.
Tying everything together is the presence of Paul McCartney, who makes an appearance at Billy Joel’s concert. It’s dramatized to maximum effect, as his appearance brings the past full circle to the present. It’s a shame this film was not included in the A-list film festivals (it premed at Tribeca, which is pretty good actually) and that it didn’t even have a theatrical release, where it could have received its due publicity. Now, it will sadly be relegated to a one-sentence inclusion in the DVD releases columns in your urban weekly. So all you fans of sports and music, please seek out this film.
The Last Play at Shea is available on DVD from Alliance Films in Canada.