The enjoyment you get out of The Last Play at Shea is directly proportional to your tolerance of Billy Joel and love of the New York Mets. Paul Crowder’s documentary about Mr. Joel performing the final concert at Shea Stadium premiered at Tribeca this week and it will make anyone who grew up in the shadow of Shea Stadium smile with delight (or, occasionally, find a lump in their throat). Unfortunately, what starts out as a sprawling history lesson about New York City politics, baseball and Billy Joel turns into nothing more than a concert movie-cum-Behind the Music special. And that isn’t all that surprising: Shea is basically a “Billy Joel Production” through and through—producer Steve Cohen has worked with Mr. Joel since 1974—but it just feels disappointing after the stakes are raised much higher to start.
The Last Play at Shea traces the history of Shea Stadium (lovingly called a “dump” by former players and fans) from when it was a glint in Robert Moses’ eye to the arrival of The Beatles to the Miracle Mets in 1969 to Bill Buckner in 1986 to even September 11. It’s a powerful threadline for a stadium and franchise that always played also-ran to their more successful older brothers in the Bronx. And along the way, we’re treated to the rise of Mr. Joel’s career: From his humble beginnings on Long Island to his marriage to supermodel Christie Brinkley and beyond.
The best documentaries—for example, Joan Rivers — A Piece of Work—put their subjects under the microscope to see and inspect the warts. Mr. Crowder, though, too often treats Mr. Joel with kid gloves. Not that it needed to be some tabloid blotter, but there is barely a mention of his missteps and transgressions over the last decade. And since the last half of the film is almost solely about Mr. Joel, the narrative conflict is lost; by the time Paul McCartney shows up to surprise the audience during the concert—let it be known that Sir Paul can still give you goosebumps even now—the film has become something akin to a Time-Life infomercial. The Last Play at Shea is great fun, but too often the great documentary it could have been isn’t on the screen.