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THE HOT ROCK, CINDERELLA LIBERTY, ART SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL and DISTANT VOICES STILL LIVES

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

THE LAST PLAY AT SHEA: FAREWELL AND GOOD NIGHT

Most people this week will be talking about the latest big screen blockbuster to make its way to DVD. I’d like to highlight something a little different. A documentary that I would guess most haven’t even heard of. And yet it’s a fitting tribute to the careers of one of America’s top living songwriters and…a baseball field.

THE LAST PLAY AT SHEA is a tribute to both Billy Joel and Shea Stadium. The documentary is never boring and leaves you wanting more (word is we will get as I’ve heard the concert in question is being released as well). It starts with a goal, Billy Joel putting on a concert to be the final event held at Shea Stadium before it meets the wrecking ball. But it’s more than that.

Rather than a simple film concentrating on one topic or the other, the film blends the stories of both leads into one. We get the background life story of Billy Joel in more of a topographic style instead of in depth and of how the events that shaped Shea Stadium also affected his life as well. For instance the construction of Shea Stadium was what prompted his family’s move as it was being built where they once lived. The stadium hosted the New York Mets which Joel came to love. And its opening event was one that changed his life forever.

The first big event held in Shea was the live performance by the Beatles in the 1965. There is little doubt that you’ve seen the footage of the event with them being driven to the stage in center field and then hopping on the stage to thousands of screaming young girls. It was the Beatles that Joel saw on TV that made him decide that’s what he wanted to do.

But the film doesn’t only focus on Joel. It also tells the story of the New York Mets. The Mets and Shea were built to fill in the void left when the Dodgers picked up and moved to California. They were the home town team that stuck in there even when times were tough. They were the team the working man supported as opposed to the New York Yankees. They were a team beloved by fans more than most. And they came back from tough times to rise to the top of the heap once more, just as Joel has done on several occasions.

As both stories unfold we also get portions of the two night concert that Joel put on as a tribute to the stadium. He gathered guests around him feeling that with the size and spectacle that IS Shea, he wasn’t worthy of paying tribute alone. He’s wrong, but he did bring along friends like Garth Brooks, Roger Daltry, John Mellencamp, John Mayer and Tony Bennett to help. He also brought along another special friend who deserved to play the final show at Shea: Paul McCartney.

McCartney was there at the beginning and at the end, though the story of his barely making it that last night is an event in itself. And the most touching moment is seen with an employee of Shea who had been there from the start, a groundskeeper who took his job to heart. He was the man who drove the Beatles to the field in those old news clips and he is the man who drives Paul to the stage via golf cart on that last night.

The music is great. The old footage of both Joel and Shea are informative and offer some historical perspective of the stadium and of Joel in his formative years. It’s sad to think that this grand old stadium is gone in lieu of the brand new corporation owned Citi Stadium. And it’s sad to think that Joel, as he states while on stage, hasn’t released a CD of new music in 15 years. But both are up to the task of this momentous occasion.

The film is a perfect blend of both, or actually all three stories: Shea, Joel and that final concert. It would have been an event to behold.

SNL THE BEST OF JOHN BELUSHI: A FITTING TRIBUTE


I was a teenager when a new show hit televisions screens on late Saturday night. Today’s teens have no idea what it was like back then when there was barely anything except old movies being run at that time or reruns of old TV shows. For that matter weeknight TV held little more than Johnny Carson on the Tonight show and a few lame imitators. And around 1 A.M. TV shut down leaving behind nothing but a test pattern. But times have changed. And one thing that changed for the better was that show on Saturdays. Who knew what would happen after the words “Live from New York, its Saturday Night!” were spoken? And who knew that an unknown actor/comedian on the show named John Belushi would become an American icon?

I was stunned one day when talking to someone who just turned 20 that they had no idea who John Belushi was, had never seen ANIMAL HOUSE and who didn’t know much past the current line up as to who was on SNL (SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE). When I got word this DVD was coming out I was glad because it gave me the chance to pass it along for someone young to discover just who Belushi was.

Then again they might not get it. The performances featured show Belushi doing bits where he was imitating Marlon Brando and Joe Cocker. And if the youngsters in the world have no clue who Belushi is could they possible know these two as well? I doubted it. But maybe this would be a way of generating an interest from them to look into those folks as well. And maybe it would be an eye opener for them to realize that comedians, celebrities and stars existed before Robert Patinson and Paris Hilton.

Back to the DVD. It features a number of the best items Belushi ever did when he was a major player on SNL. We see Belushi as Brando as the Godfather going to a group therapy session where he’s asked to play out his problems. As Joe Cocker singing “With A Little Help From My Friend” (which no one who didn’t live in the sixties will understand if they don’t youtube a clip of Cocker from that time period).  Belushi as the famed Samurai Swordsmen in several clips from Samurai Deli to the disco film spoof Samurai Night Fever.  There are so many different offerings of Belushi here that you can’t just name them all and expect the descriptions to do them justice.

There were two moments that were particularly touching to me. One was watching Belushi perform with Dan Aykroyd as the Blues Brothers. Their love of the music and the energy they exude on stage while performing got a number of young people to seek out the blues music the paid tribute to. This energy combined with the friendship we learned of between these two brought back fond memories.

The other moment that actually brought a tear to my eye, and always has, was a filmed piece for the show that featured Belushi as an old man going to visit the graves of the other Not Ready For Prime Time Players (the name given to the original cast members). He talks about each one and their untimely demises, how he misses them and then how he came to be the last one. It was because…he was a dancer! He then proceeds to dance on their graves. The ironic thing was that the skit has him the sole survivor, he was actually the first to pass away.

The disc is a fitting tribute to the time Belushi spent on the show. The entire casts from the first few seasons were absolutely amazing. Some didn’t take center stage nearly as often as Belushi or have careers that soared as his did, but each played an important role in what became SNL. I watched a recent episode of the show one night. As I watched I realized why I stopped. It wasn’t funny. When SNL began there might be one or two sketches that weren’t quite funny. But today it seems the opposite is true with only one or two that ARE funny. Some stars have hit breakout time and rightly so. But on the whole the show is lacking the humor it had when it began. Perhaps its time to head off to that SNL cemetery Belushi danced in.

Lionsgate has released a series of DVDs featuring the main players from different season of the show SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.  Many are being re-released and one might think it was nothing more than the same old same old. The truth is they’ve added several more sequences to each disc and for fans of the stars it’s worth it to add to your collection. Included for the first time in the Belushi disc are Samurai Hotel, Samurai Tailor, Bad Director, The Farbers Meet The Coneheads, Weekend Update/Songs About The Weather and Weekend Update/Skylab.

Fans of SNL will be happy this series is out. And if you’re not a fan or haven’t been exposed to the early years, begin with Belushi and go from there. And take the time to share them with someone who has yet to be exposed to the comic genius that was SNL.

SNL THE BEST OF CHRIS FARLEY: THE NEXT BIG GUY SNL STAR

SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE has for years tried to have someone on their star line up to appease every group available. And after the success they landed with John Belushi, they’ve always managed to have a fat guy on the show. No, Belushi wasn’t fat, he was a bigger than standard fella though. So apparently those behind SNL figure it’s a formula best not tampered with.

The series began on a high note and then suddenly had some of the worst years possible. Of the bad years (which for some reason there seems to be no DVDs of or highlights of on cable stations showing reruns) only two members stood out and were kept for another few seasons (Eddie Murphy and Joe Piscopo). Then it got good again. Then bad. Then good again. Fortunately they had another break out star in the fat guy area. His name was Chris Farley. Unfortunately he followed the fate of former lead Belushi and died at a young age from overindulging in the wrong things.

For fans of Farley and of SNL though we have the release of THE BEST OF CHRIS FARLEY. Opening with Farley as the son of Rudolph Giuliani during his inauguration speech you can see he was an amazing physical comedian who got laughs from the get go. He was unafraid to take the leap and make fun of himself and his size and he got laughs in the process.

Perhaps the best things we as viewers got to see when Farley took the stage was that he was able to make fellow cast members laugh as well. It was those moments when they found themselves nearly unable to keep a straight face during a skit that you knew he was really THAT funny. As motivational speaker Matt Foley who lives “in a van down by the river” talking to teens David Spade and Christina Applegate, we watch as both of them nearly collapse trying to stop themselves from laughing.

Another example here of Farley’s fearlessness is when we witness him competing against Patrick Swayze to become the next Chippendales dancer. Swayze ripped abs and dancing ability are nothing compared to Farley’s jumps and falls and flab swaying with each gyration. The crowd can be heard here nearly drowning out the music that plays as they compete. And when their dance off finishes and you hear the owners talk about how they had a hard time deciding who to choose it just caps off the piece.

If you’ve ever conducted an interview with someone you admired or even met a celebrity for the first time you’ll know just how difficult it can be to get past that star struck feeling. Farley takes that to a whole new level as an interviewer who seems to talk more about the movie scenes and events of the people he’s interviewing and how they impressed him than in interviewing the person. This was a favorite skit of mine but got tiresome as the years wore on. But it still brings laughter.

Farley created a number of other characters on display here as well. The cafeteria lunch lady, one of the Gap girls and more, all show Farley at his best. To this day people will hold their fingers up to make quote marks as they speak, all because at one time or another they saw Farley do it.

In the extras there are Farley’s appearances on Conan and Leno. During both there are glimpses into the troubled soul that was Chris Farley. He used his weight to his advantage and to get a laugh, but there was a lot of pain behind the laughter. That’s not what’s on display here up front, but you can feel it in some of his answers.

Lionsgate has released a series of DVDs featuring the main players from different season of the show SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE.  Many are being re-released and one might think it was nothing more than the same old same old. The truth is they’ve added several more sequences to each disc and for fans of the stars it’s worth it to add to your collection. Here they include Dress Sketches (those done prior to show time but for one reason or another cut before the show aired), photos of Farley, two appearances on talk shows, a family album and several other sketches not included the first time around, including the now famous Scmitts Gay Beer.

Fans of Farley will want to add this to their collection. And for those who have yet to be exposed, there isn’t a better starting place than this DVD.