In July 2008, Billy Joel played the last concerts to take place at Shea Stadium before the tired gray, 44-year old facility gracefully retired to make way for the New York Mets new home, the shiny and bright Citi Field.
“The Last Play at Shea,” which comes out on DVD today (Feb. 8) through Lions Gate, attempts to tie together the rise of Shea, the Mets and Joel in a 90-minute documentary that makes its case convincingly at times and not so much at others, but is always entertaining. If nothing else, both the New York Mets and Billy Joel are resiliently scrappy.
Director Paul Crowder, who has helmed a number of other docs, most notably “Dogtown and Z-Boys,” as well as “Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who” and “Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos,” makes superb use of the wonderful archival footage available. Even the most casual of sports fans knows the story of the historic ’69 Mets, when a black cat ran out in front of the Chicago Cubs’ dugout during the pennant race. The Mets came from behind not only to win the game, but the pennant and the World Series. “Nothing in life is ever like that,” says one commentator.
And, of course, Shea has a rich music history: the first concert at Shea was a little band called The Beatles in 1965 (and again in 1966). Many others followed, including the Police, The Who and Simon & Garfunkel.
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In a little too laborious detail, Crowder details how Shea Stadium came into being after the Brooklyn Dodgers left for Los Angeles. Using clever animation, he ties in developer Robert Moses’ expansion of Queens up to bordering Long Island and the simultaneously suburban suburban development of Long Island. Not so coincidentally, little Billy Joel’s parents relocated to Long Island during this time.
Despite the fact that from the get-go, Shea Stadium was by any measure, a white elephant, the players love for it comes through loud and clear. As Mets announcer Gary Cohen declares, out of 55,000 seats, only 3-4,000 were any good, but as Darryl Strawberry adds, it was a dump, but “it was our dump.” Player after player, from Tom Seaver to Ron Darling to Mike Piazza share loving, amusing memories of their time at Shea.
As the Mets are building their dynasty, Joel is creating his. Crowder shows the development of the songs: “Movin’ Out,” is a direct result of Joel and then-wife Elizabeth’s decision to move from New York to Los Angeles to try to get out of an onerous record and publishing deal with Artie Ripp (Walter Yetnikoff, former president of Columbia Records and one of the music industry’s most colorful characters, almost steals the show when he profanely and hilariously recalls how Columbia parent CBS bought Joel out of his initial deal, ultimately giving him back his publishing as a birthday present). “Piano Man” came from the six months when Joel played in a bar on Wilshire Blvd. during the early ‘70s. The film intersperses archival footage of Joel playing early songs like “The Entertainer” with him playing them at Shea.
The doc also ties in New York City’s bankruptcy and a number of Mets’ disastrous seasons in the late ‘70s with Joel’s turbulent mid-‘80s, when he discovers that Elizabeth’s brother, who takes over management of Joel after he and Elizabeth divorce (who the hell thought that was a good idea?) absconds with much of Joel’s money. Joel becomes a road warrior to try to make up his lost funds. Those absences, in part, and his increased drinking, lead to his divorce from wife No. 2, Christie Brinkley. Brinkley is featured heavily in the doc as a talking head. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth is not.
The marriage of Joel and the Mets works best when Crowder uses a Joel song to accent a particularly historical or poignant time in Shea’s history, even though the tune and event are completely unrelated. Two striking examples shine. He underscores the Mets’ amazing victory over the Boston Red Sox (apologies to Sox fans) in game six of the 1986 World Series, when Mookie Wilson’s grounder goes between Bill Buckner’s legs to “Miami 2017 (Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway).”
Then, in a heartrending segment, he shows Shea Stadium being used as a staging area for supplies and for first responders following 9/11, as well as the Mets’ extremely emotional return to the field on Sept. 21, 2001 (Mike Piazza’s comments are especially stirring. Sometimes a game becomes much more than just a game). Crowder plays Joel’s building “Goodnight Saigon,” both the recording and the artist playing it live at Shea in 2008, to score the scene. Troops join Joel on stage for the rousing “We would all go down together” chorus.
Many times it seems as if Crowder is trying to get his arms around way too big a ball by trying to give equal time to the Mets and Joel and Shea. That leads to unwieldy transitions, especially when he brings in the Mets groundskeeper, who just happened to drive the Beatles onto the field in 1965 and is still there to do the same in 2008, when Paul McCartney poetically joins Joel to close the last concert with “Let It Be” and to bring it all full circle.
“The Last Play At Shea” isn’t a home run. It’s more like a triple. But just like America’s favorite past time, it is an extremely pleasurable way to wile away a few hours.
For those who want just the concerts, Columbia Legacy will release “Billy Joel - Live At Shea Stadium” on CD, DVD and Blu-Ray on March 8.