Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 23, 2014)
Most rock fans know that the Beatles were the first musical act to play Shea Stadium, but I suspect fewer can tell you the last performer to pack the Mets’ former home. In the summer of 2008, Billy Joel did two shows at the Queens venue and finished off the building in style.
Joel released a concert video that covered those performances way back in 2011, so folks who simply want to see the concerts should head there. With 2010’s The Last Play at Shea, we find a documentary about the stadium as well as Joel’s shows there and his life/career.
This means the expected conglomeration of archival materials and modern interviews. We hear from Joel, 1965 concert promoter Sid Bernstein, authors Dana Brand and Alan Light, lighting designer Steve Cohen, New York Times writer Dan Barry, Queens Museum of Art’s Tom Finklepearl, Braunschweig Orchestra musical director/Billy’s half-brother Alex Joel, Mets collector Gary Green, Billy Joel’s childhood friend Bill Zampino, live sound producer Brian Ruggles, Billy Joel archivist Jeff Schock, historian Jeffrey Kroessler, Mets broadcaster Gary Cohen, agent Dennis Arfa, former Columbia Records president Walter Yetnikoff, groundskeeper Pete Flynn, ex-wives Katie Lee and Christie Brinkley, daughter Alexa Ray Joel, attorney Lee Eastman, former road manager Jimmy Miner, former ballplayers Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling, Mike Piazza, Tom Seaver, Keith Hernandez, Ralph Kiner, and musicians Paul McCartney, Sting, Jon Small, Roger Daltrey, Garth Brooks, Steven Tyler, and Tony Bennett.
Across the interviews and clips, we learn about Joel’s final concerts at Shea and see segments from the performances along with info about the musician’s past. In addition, the documentary covers the stadium’s history. In addition to the building’s roots and construction, we learn about the Beatles initial Shea appearance in 1965, aspect of the Mets’ existence and significant seasons, and related topics.
As a documentary, Play seems like a mess. Oh, it’s an entertaining mess, but it tends to be so all over the place that it becomes a little perplexing to watch.
This comes from the show’s dual focus, as it attempts a fairly even balance between aspects of Joel’s life/career and Shea-related subjects. Actually, the stadium gets the most attention in the program’s first half, while Joel becomes the focal point during the second.
Play doesn’t split its time as evenly as I might make it sound, though, as it constantly hops between its two main subjects. This creates a jumbled feel to the program that tends to diminish the impact of what we learn.
On their own, the various elements seem satisfying. We get a reasonably good look at both Shea and Joel; even though these components tend to remain somewhat superficial, we learn the basics well.
Still, the back-and-forth becomes a distraction, and those shifts highlight the lack of tremendous substance. One could easily fill a long documentary about either of this Play’s main subjects, so the decision to split a short 95-minute piece between the two means we won’t learn nearly as much as we’d like.
Because of this, I think Play would’ve worked better if it’d primarily stuck with Joel or Shea. Give us lots of Billy and a little Shea, or vice versa, but the semi-even distribution just causes frustration, as the program skimps on real depth.
It even omits some major areas, such as other sports tenants of Shea. The Jets played there for decades, and the team won their only Super Bowl while they resided at Shea. At no point does this subject arise, though, which seems odd. Sure, the Jets didn’t play the Super Bowl at New York – SB III took place in Miami – but they did win the AFL Championship game there. Couldn’t the program have spent a minute or two on this?
Even with these omissions and the overall brevity of the piece, Play entertains. It includes a decent sampling of music, and it’s nice to hear from some of the artists and athletes who worked at Shea. I just wish it’d managed a tighter focus and not tried to pack so much into so little time.