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"I'm just overwhelmed by all of this."
There's almost always a sense of deep melancholy that comes with the destruction of a sports stadium. There's so much history, so many memories, all crashing down in a matter of seconds. I was present the day Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium was demolished, and seeing it crash gave me an instant jolt of simultaneous awe and sadness. Sure, it was just a lot of bricks, mortar, metal and wood. Sure, the Braves would play in a brand-new stadium (a better one, in all honesty). Sure, the change was technically a positive one in a number of ways. Even so, it was sad to say goodbye.
New York Mets fans went through a similar experience back in 2009, when Shea Stadium was demolished in order to provide addition parking space for the new Citi Field. Though best known as the home of the Mets, Shea Stadium played host to numerous big concert events over the years. To help fans say goodbye, a concert event known as The Last Play at Shea was hosted over the course of two nights in the summer of 2008. Featuring Billy Joel with guest appearances by a wide variety of esteemed artists, the concert was as much a moment of catharsis for the artists as the fans, as most of the performers selected were musicians who had a history with the stadium.
Just as the concert was less an evening of entertainment than a musical farewell to one of New York's landmarks, Paul Crowder's The Last Play at Shea documentary is less a concert film than a continuation of the sentimental farewell. A surprisingly large amount of the running time is devoted to interviews with…well, just about everyone. You get interviews with ball players (Tom Seaver, Daryl Strawberry), sports analysts, assorted individuals who have played a large role in stadium's history, experts on the history of Queens and particularly the musicians participating in the concert (Joel, Paul McCartney, Sting, Roger Daltrey, John Mayer, Garth Brooks, and Tony Bennett). Everybody gets pretty sentimental about it; Shea means something to everyone.
The film's biggest liability is perhaps its expansive, free-flowing nature, as it wanders away from the concert for very lengthy stretches to indulge only modestly interesting interviewees or present documentary pieces on the history of Shea (accompanied by narration from Alec Baldwin and light animation), examinations of Joel's life and career, explorations of important moments in Mets history…after a while, one starts to forget what exactly The Last Play at Shea is supposed to be about. Like a sob story from a colorful drunk, the film is meandering, unfocused and compelling all at once. For better or worse, all of this stuff is just thrown up on the screen with as much feeling and as little sense of purpose as possible.
Personally, I was happiest whenever the film would go back to the primary event. The musical numbers (often presented in snippets, sadly) are lively and engaging, with Joel running through a series of his biggest hits. The guest performances are a treat, too: Tony Bennett seems livelier than usual when dueting with Joel on "New York State of Mind," while Joel and McCartney seem to enjoy getting the chance to play "Let it Be" together. As you might expect, the music veers towards the sentimental side of Joel's catalogue, with tunes like "Lullaby," "Goodnight Saigon" and "She's Got a Way About Her" making prominent appearances.
The DVD transfer is very strong during the interview segments, pretty good during the concerts segments and understandably mixed during the moments of archival footage. The level of detail is exceptionally sharp for a standard-def release during the new segments. Audio is solid enough and really rocks during some of the performances, but the music often takes a backseat to narration and interview clips. Extras are limited to a brief featurette ("Billy Joel's Front Row Ticket Santa") and an interview with Chuck Klosterman.
The Last Play at Shea isn't particularly good as a Billy Joel documentary, concert film, Shea Stadium documentary, or cinematic experience, but there's something charming about it nonetheless. I suspect I would find it even more charming if I was a Mets fan, but there you go.
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