Last night, I attended what may have been the largest movie premiere in history, a showing at Citi Field, of “Last Play at Shea” (produced by Steve Cohen and Nigel Sinclair, in conjunction with Billy Joel’s Maritime Pictures and Spitfire Films, directed by Paul Crowder). As I wrote after I saw the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in April, this is a wonderful film. It brings together the stories of Billy Joel, the Beatles, New York, Shea Stadium, and the Mets, combining them into a perfectly-paced narrative with tremendous emotional power. It is inspired myth-making. And unlike a lot of myth-making, it is convincing. In the stories of Joel, McCartney, Shea, the Mets, Pete Flynn, and the people of New York, the film-makers find a pattern. It’s not as if all these things are connected. But they are alike. They illustrate the narrative of New York that cannot be told by the Yankees or Wall Street. This is the narrative of the downtrodden, the dumpy, and the unlikely. This is about the magic of the unanticipated: the magic of a lounge singer in a dive becoming a superstar, a ball finding its way through a first baseman’s legs, a dumpy stadium becoming a circle of glory loved around the world. What makes the film richer than most stories about the triumph of the downtrodden is that it does not try to suggest that miracles often happen, and it doesn’t try to suggest that occasional miracles are enough. The Mets still lose the last game at Shea, Billy Joel has not had the easiest life, life-long marriages end, disaster still strikes. But sometimes people can gather together in a big crowd and see a concert by artists they love, or see a game played by a team they love, and for a few moments life feels like a magic carpet ride shared with tens of thousands of sudden friends. Life is what it is. But music and games can make it into something more. Films about sports are usually so boring. Films about music are usually only worth listening to. This film feels as if it is about life. One of the people I saw it with has no interest in baseball, limited interest in Joel, and no connection to New York. Yet he “got” the film and was very moved by it. Anybody would be. This film deserves to be opening soon at your local multi-plex, where it would give the filmed video games and the formulaic comedies a run for their money.
It is a very strange thing to sit in a crowd of 20,000 and do something that no crowd of 20,000 has ever done before. We were watching a movie. Or were we? The unprecedented nature of our experience was evident from the very beginning. At the opening of the film, Billy Joel comes out to his piano at Shea and to begin his concert, he leads the crowd in the singing of the national anthem, just as a crowd would do at the start of a baseball game. Okay, what are we supposed to do? Are we a crowd at a movie? If you’re watching a movie in which somebody leads a crowd in the singing of the national anthem, you’re not supposed to stand up and sing, are you? That’s what’s happening on the screen. We’re spectators. We’re not supposed to participate. And yet even if we’re watching a movie, we’re sitting here in a baseball stadium, where the entertainment always starts with the singing of the national anthem. Some people stood up, sat down, stood up again, as most of us looked confused. Finally, we all got up and sang “The Star Spangled Banner” just like the crowd we were watching on the screen. It felt as if we became the crowd on the screen, and that feeling, it seemed to me, lasted all through the film.
We were several crowds, all of them different, and all of them connected. And although we were perfectly orderly, we didn’t behave like a crowd watching a movie. We were the concert crowd, cheering Tony Bennett as he hit a high sustained note at the end of “New York State of Mind,” cheering the opening piano chords of every Billy Joel song, singing along with “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Piano Man,” and “Let It Be.” We became the crowds that cheered the hopeful leap of the 1962 Mets, the impossible championship of the ’69 Mets, the ball going through Buckner’s legs, and the Piazza home run of September 21, 2001. The black cat and the Beatles seemed to run out onto grass right in front of us, even though we knew that they actually ran out onto the grass that was now buried forever under asphalt just a few feet from us. We wept as the Mets lost the last game at Shea and you heard a collective mournful grunt when the old scoreboard fell down on its face. When we weren’t blending into these historic crowds, we were ourselves in real time, watching a film. We cheered Billy Joel when he described his decision to move back to New York at a time when no one else loved it or believed in it. We laughed when he described himself as “impossibly not good looking.” We nodded our heads with understanding as he tried to define the “element of spirituality” that tied everything in this film together.
It was a hit. I heard people talking and everyone was blown away. No one complained that there wasn’t enough concert footage. No one complained about anything. There may have been a little disappointment that Billy did not come out at the end to lead us in a song. But hey, why should we expect that? We had seen something real, in the way that art can sometimes be more real than anything else. We saw a great film that moved us to our bones and how often do you see something like that? Almost never. And we saw it with 20,000 other people in a baseball stadium. How often do you do that? You never do that. We did that.