Last night (Sunday, April 25), I went to see the world premiere of “Last Play at Shea” at the Tribeca Film Festival. I don’t normally like to write a review of a film until I have seen it more than once, taking notes on it the second and third time. I’m breaking from my own tradition here because I want to get the word out about this film. It’s extraordinary.
“Last Play at Shea,” directed by Paul Crowder, is an unusual film, but it is so successful because it is so unusual. It focuses on the final concerts played at Shea Stadium on July 16 and 18, 2008 by Billy Joel and the people he invited to play with him (notably Tony Bennett, Roger Daltrey, Steve Tyler, and Paul McCartney). The film includes extensive footage from these concerts and it captures the powerful emotional bond between the crowd and Joel and McCartney in particular. It is a great concert film, but Crowder has made it much more than a concert film. By interweaving the related stories of Billy Joel, Shea, the Mets, and New York over the past half century, Crowder turns the historic concert into a celebration of the way in which great art and championships aren’t things from another world. They can rise up out of our midst, out of the imperfect and the unlikely. Shea, as the film makes clear, was a very ordinary and imperfect stadium. The Beatles when they started, were, as Joel mentions in the film, an ordinary group of British working class guys who at the time didn’t fit anybody’s idea of what pop stars were supposed to look and sound like. Billy Joel, as the film frankly illustrates, is himself ordinary, imperfect and even more unlikely than the Beatles. The Mets, Joel’s favorite baseball team, were even worse than ordinary and imperfect. Yet Joel, the Beatles, and the Mets brought miracles to the kind of ordinary people who filled the stadium and made the upper deck shake. The last concert at Shea celebrated the way the miraculous can emerge from the ordinary. The film shows us the concert, and it enables us to realize and cherish what it meant.
One of the most impressing things about “Last Play at Shea” is the way it tells its stories without getting confusing or bogged down. The editing and pacing are brisk. There is a constant sense of excitement, of being in a visually arresting moment that sounds great and is moving you forward. There is a crisp and effective use of interviews with a wide range of people. You hear from Paul McCartney, Roger Daltrey, Steve Tyler, Christie Brinkley, Alexa Ray Joel, some of Billy’s musical and business associates, Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, Keith Hernandez, Ralph Kiner, Tom Seaver, Mike Piazza, Pete Flynn, me, and Greg Prince. Clips from these interviews are embedded in spectacular original footage. You will enjoy the horrifying haircuts and raw talent of the early Joel, and you will feel as if you’re onstage with the Beatles as they try to hear the music they’re playing over the screams of the teenagers. You seem to be following Mookie Wilson’s ball through Bill Buckner’s legs. Footage of the actual concert is included throughout the film, and it is often used to illustrate subtly whatever the film happens to be developing at the point where it is introduced. At various times, amusing and creative animations explain relevant facts about the history of New York and the way in which Billy Joel’s life and Shea’s existence connect to it. The most significant unifying element in the film, however, is Billy Joel’s own voice. In his interviews throughout the film, Joel comes across as being every bit as articulate and as approachable as you dream he might be. Joel has a proud yet bittersweet understanding of who he is and what he means to people. He is humbly amazed at people’s love of him, at his own unlikely success and survival. At one point, he looks out at the 60,000 people in the stadium and wonders how he has been able to fill this grand space when he hasn’t released an album with original material for 15 years. Very few superstars would be humble enough or honest enough to say this to so many people, or to allow it to be included in a film. But you get a sense that this is what Billy Joel is about. He’s not going to lie about himself, just as it doesn’t make sense to lie about the Mets or about the shortcomings of Shea stadium. In this moment, as in other important moments in this film, we have the sense that there’s never anything intrinsically wrong with being honest or being limited. The Mets’ triumphs after years of drought, like Joel’s triumphs after years of struggle, show us that getting something means so much more when you never in a million years thought you were ever going to have it.
In “Last Play at Shea,” the sublime ordinariness of Shea, the Mets, the Beatles, and Joel, are also associated with the city in which they have all come together. “Last Play at Shea” is very much a New York story, but it is not the story that the Yankees or Wall Street would tell us. It’s not about being king of the hill or top of the heap. It is also not just about Manhattan. Rather it is a kind of celebration of Queens and Long Island, of the vast, often boring sprawl of the whole metropolis, an enormous place that, like Shea stadium, can be gritty and not always presentable, a place that has had its ups and downs. Like Shea, however, the New York celebrated in this film can inspire the kind of intense loyalty Joel and millions of others feel for it. It also has a tradition of inspiring a hopefulness that will every once in a while call a miracle down from the sky. This metaphor is movingly developed in the climactic sequence of the film, where Joel appears, at the end of the concert on the 18th, to be calling a star, an airplane from London containing Paul McCartney, down to earth. McCartney lands and in what any New Yorker will recognize as the greatest miracle in the film, makes it from JFK to Shea in eleven minutes. It is exciting to follow his motorcade and it is moving to see him arrive. As ordinary as you could ever ask anyone to be, McCartney gets into the bullpen cart driven by groundskeeper Pete Flynn, who reminds him that he also drove the Beatles onto the field for the concert that created the stadium concert on August 15, 1965. The story, and the cycle of miracles, come full circle as the film nears its end. As Joel and McCartney come together on stage, as 1965 and 2008 are connected, we feel that New York itself is about hope and loyalty, family and memory. It is about tolerating and transcending imperfection and failure. These are ideas I have always found in the great sixties myth of the Mets, something that you don’t find in the myth of the Yankees, or in the minds of those who boo Mets players struggling to emerge from a slump. I am so glad somebody made a film about this other aspect of New York. It needs to have a voice and in this film we see how Billy Joel struggled to give it a voice in this last concert.
McCartney’s miraculous arrival prepares us for the full emotional experience of the last three numbers performed: “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Piano Man,” and “Let It Be.” The audience for the film was as moved by these performances as the audience it was watching on the screen. In the camera’s sweeping views of the crowd in the stadium, in the familiar music we were hearing performed by the men who created it, we were treated to a final revelation of the way in which extraordinary ordinary people create most of what there is to value in this world. Here is the true wonder and power of the great city. Here is the sense of community that made Shea into a cathedral of music and sport. I am so grateful that our local miracles have received such a worthy tribute from Billy Joel, Paul Crowder, and everyone else who had a role in making this generous, illuminating, and powerful film.