Billy Joel may look like a mob lawyer these days, but his voice still rings and his backside rarely touches the piano bench during “The Last Play at Shea,” a feel-good account of Joel’s two-night stand at that bygone home of New York sports heroics. Chronicling the histories of Joel, the Mets and Shea Stadium itself, helmer Paul Crowder jams the proverbial 90 pounds of film into a five-pound bag, giving it as many structural infirmities as the old ballpark. Still, the film’s sentiments are so warm, no one will care; its music and feeling should lend it wide appeal, probably via cable.
Joel occupies an almost singular position among pop songwriters of the last half-century; Paul Simon is probably his closest American counterpart, and Simon wouldn’t have been the man for Shea. No, you needed a Lawn Guyland guy (though Queens, where Simon hails from, is officially on Long Island), which made Joel the natural choice for those last concerts in the park on July 16 and 18, 2008. (The Mets would play their last home game that September.)
It wasn’t just about geography, however: Overwrought, theatrical and stadium-friendly, Joel’s songs provided just the right sloppily emotional goodbye that made for tears and smiling among the Nassau-Suffolk aud, many of whom can be seen, children in tow, waving their longneck Budweisers at the stage while being serenaded with “Captain Jack,” “Lullaby” or “New York State of Mind.” It was the perfect music for the end of an era, even if an entire song isn’t quite heard throughout the film.
But Crowder has a lot on his plate. “Last Play” isn’t just about Joel, but also Shea, and it provides an evolutionary recap of how baseball-deprived Queens was ripe for the Mets when the then-hapless, 2-year-old team limped into the new stadium in 1964.
Taking us back to Gotham “master builder” Robert Moses and his creation of the modern suburb (without noting anything about Moses the neighborhood destroyer), Crowder lays out the subsequent development of Long Island as a blue-collar bastion; Joel’s place in it; his history as an artist; and the way the stadium etched itself in the pop-cultural imagination, mostly through some terrific footage of the Beatles’ legendary 1965 concert at Shea, with commentary by Paul McCartney (who recalls once again that the band couldn’t hear anything but the screaming). Complicated as the movie’s structure is, somehow, it works.
Joel, clearly not afraid to sweat in public, hosted a number of colleagues onstage during the two nights rendered here, including some who’d actually played there in the past, such as Roger Daltrey of the Who, and some who just fit, like Tony Bennett — who, it must be said, upstages Joel grandly on “New York State of Mind.”
But Joel loves it, and comes across throughout as a supremely down-to-earth, gimlet-eyed, charismatic Everyman, even when pic addresses his personal foibles; at one point, ex-wife Christine Brinkley recalls, among other things, how Joel was massively swindled by an ex-manager he had refused to fire. (In one truly hilarious sequence, ex-CBS Record topper Walter Yetnikoff recalls how he retrieved Joel’s early copyrights from an unscrupulous ex-manager; it’s like something out of “The Godfather.”) But the pic’s portrait of Joel is one of enormous sincerity and genuine amazement at his good fortune in having the opportunity to perform the last shows at Shea (before a two-night crowd of 110,000).
From the shooting to the soundtrack, production values are extraordinary.