Friday, October 29, 2010

Queens Swan Song: Last Play at Shea

Shea Stadium was old and creaky, but according to former Mets, they used to feel a mystique playing there that gave them a legitimate home field advantage. So, how’s that new Citi Field working out so far? To be fair, the team’s early years at Shea were an exercise in abject futility, but then in 1969 everything suddenly changed. In addition to sports history, a fair amount of great musical moments happened there too, like a 1965 concert featuring young band from Liverpool. Fittingly though, it was Long Island’s native son Billy Joel who closed the stadium with a post-game concert that is lovingly documented in Paul Crowder and Jon Small’s Last Play at Shea (trailer here), which screens opens today in New York.

Partly a Behind the Music-like profile of Joel, partly a chronicle of the Mets and the stadium in which they played, with a dash of borough history thrown in for context, Play is a paean to all things Queens. Built by Robert Moses to be a modern day equivalent of the Roman Coliseum, aesthetically Shea fell fall short. The team William Shea found to inhabit it was also an initial disaster, but fans came anyway.

As a Mets fan, the Levittown raised Joel clearly understood the significance of playing Shea’s final gig. The film revisits the ups and downs of his long career, interviewing many of his close associates. Based on her segments, Joel clearly still seems to be on good terms with his ex-wife, Christy Brinkley which speaks well of both. However, wife #1 and her brother, the ex-manager who allegedly robbed him blind, are conspicuously absent, for obvious reasons. Overall, one definitely gets an appreciation of his longevity and resiliency in Play. His instincts for structuring the set also seem right-on-target, starting with a respectful, on key rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.”

Play is hardly innovative filmmaking, but as nostalgia it is totally effective and surprisingly entertaining. A flood of memories will come back to Mets fans watching Crowder and Small’s film, including the black cat incident, the infamous Buckner error, and their recent painful late season collapses. However, the one glaring omission are the J-E-T-S, who played their most celebrated seasons at Shea before leaving for the Meadowlands.

As a concert film, Play is pretty solid, especially for Billy Joel fans. There are also several very cool musical guest artists, including Tony Bennett, joining him for a duet performance of “New York State of Mind.” Frankly, you have to give Joel credit for still bringing the energy, obviously connecting with the enormous audience on a personal level.

A thoroughly entertaining concert film, sports history, and an elegy to glory days gone by, Play was a real sleeper hit at this year’s Tribeca. Even Yankee fans from Manhattan have been charmed by it. A great New York doc, it opens today (10/29) at the Cinema Village.