Last Play at Shea, The (DVD Review)28 Feb, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Features Billy Joel, Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Tom Seaver.
You can almost hear the lament of former Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner when the famed footage of him appears yet again here: that eternally revived climax of game 6 opposite the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. And Buckner would have a point were he to moan, “Mookie Wilson’s game-ending grounder rolling through my legs has to show up in what is predominantly a music documentary?”
Yet in this atypical case it does — because the movie Shea (as the real Shea was) is about a lot of disparate things. On the one hand, this is to the disadvantage of Paul Crowder’s sparsely distributed docu/concert film from last year, which tells the story behind the last in a long line of musical performances at the Queens-based stadium before its 2008 demolition. But if there are enough raw materials here for three or four more fleshed-out movies, it’s almost impossible for the result to be anything less than engrossing. To say nothing of endearing, which is probably the real point.
So here, in a single story, we start with archival footage of legendary urban planner Robert Moses (the subject of Robert Caro’s landmark biography The Power Broker). He’s the abrasive powerhouse who put Queens on the map far more substantially than it had been before by constructing Shea Stadium for the newly formed Mets after the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York (baseball) Giants left the East Coast for greener pastures on the Pacific. Also from the archives are old shots of the Mets’ folkloric on-field ineptitude throughout the 1960s — until they turned things around, completely and abruptly, at the end of the decade by winning the 1969 World Series.
You want more? Well, there are also clips of the Beatles performing on this same hallowed ground where the beloved fielding/base-running horror Marv Throneberry once stood (and more than thrice, got picked off). Plus current-day interviews of Mets royalty Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez and Darryl Strawberry (who concedes that Shea was a dump — “but our dump”) — as well as Paul McCartney, Sting and Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler. And Tony Bennett appearing on stage with Joel to perform “New York State of Mind.” And Christie Brinkley (Joel’s second wife) discussing their domestic life.
Joel has said that his rock star ambitions dated from seeing the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” figuring that having young women scream while you were performing was not a bad way to go. As a result, his connection with McCartney is a key part of this story — particularly in Joel’s attempts to land the latter for this goodbye concert when it appeared that the former Beatle’s locked-in schedule would negate any chance of this happening. But look out.
Another extensively detailed component here is the bizarre trajectory of Joel’s personal life after growing up on Long Island as a Jewish child of divorce. First he fell in love with and married the wife of his business partner, who gave Joel a solid punch in the nose but later came back to work with him. Then, for a long time, she (Elizabeth) became Joel’s manager as well — and even after they divorced, her brother handled Joel’s business affairs until he had to sue the guy for serious fraud. Largely cleaned out, Joel then had to go on the road in a flurry of industrial-strength tours to make back the money — just as Brinkley and their young daughter could have used him at home (read: the roots of Splitsville.) So you can see why the singer’s weight has ballooned so much from the days of The Stranger and 52nd Street, why he has suffered from bouts of depression and why (just recently) friend and touring partner Elton John implored Joel to get his drinking under control (there’s one fleeting line in Shea where Joel concedes he might have a problem).
If the result falls short of being a major documentary, it does have (Joel woes aside) a strong “feel-good” dimension; if nothing else, it’s good to see Brinkley making nice here (their daughter is interviewed, too). There’s even footage of the black cat that got a lot of ink for running onto the field In September 1969 and supposedly spooking the Chicago Cubs into blowing the pennant after it stared into their dugout to Cubs manager Leo Durocher who was boss. Which not too many tried to do this side of Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler, who banned Durocher for the 1947 season over gambling issues.