Bye-bye mystery. McLean spills secrets of ‘American Pie’ in doc.
Don McLean has listened for decades as people belted out his song “American Pie” at last call or at karaoke — and applauds you for the effort.
“I’ve heard whole bars burst into this song when I’ve been across the room,” McLean said in a recent interview. “And they’re so happy singing it that I realized, ‘You don’t really have to worry about how well you sing this song anymore. Even sung badly, people are really happy with it.’ ”
Happy might be a bit of an understatement. “American Pie” is considered a masterpiece, voted among the top five Songs of the Century compiled by the Recording Industry Association of America and the National Endowment for the Arts.
McLean — and his singular tune — are now the subject of a full-length feature documentary, “The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie,’ ” now streaming on Paramount+.
It’s mandatory viewing for McLean fans or anyone who has marveled at his sonic treasure. It also represents an elegant film blueprint for future deep dives into a song and its wider cultural relevance.
For those fans who have wondered about the lyrics they are singing in bars and cars, McLean shares the secrets. “That was the fun of writing the song,” he said in the interview. “I was up at night, smiling and thinking about what I’m going to do with this.”
The documentary starts when a single-engine plane carrying Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and Jiles P. Richardson, the “Big Bopper,” plunged into a cornfield north of Clear Lake, Iowa, on Feb. 3, 1959,
killing the three stars and their pilot.
McLean was 13, living in New Rochelle, New York, when the crash occurred. “I was in absolute shock. I may have actually cried,” he says of Holly’s death in the film. “You can’t intellectualize it. It hurt me.”
Years later, McLean would plumb that pain in “American Pie,” baking in his own grief at his father’s passing and writing an eulogy for the American dream. He was creating his second album in 1971 while the nation was racked by assassinations, anti-war protests and civil right marches. He thought he “needed a big song about America.” The first verse and melody seemed to just tumble out. “A long, long, time ago ...”
It climaxed in the huge singalong chorus: “We were singin’, ‘Bye-bye, Miss American pie’/ Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry/ Them good old boys were drinkin’ whiskey ’n rye/ And singin’, ‘This’ll be the day that I die.’ ”
“I said, ‘Wow, that is something.’ I don’t know what it is, but it’s exactly what I’ve been wanting to try to get ahold of — that feeling about Buddy Holly — for all these years and that plane crash,” McLean said in the recent
interview. “I always feel a tug inside me whenever I think about Buddy.”
The 90-minute documentary incorporates news footage of the ’70s and uses actors in re-creations. Cameras capture McLean visiting the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake, where Holly and his fellow musicians played before their fatal flight.
“(McLean) was glad to open up because he and his manager thought it was the time to do it and this was the platform to do it in,” says music producer and songwriter Spencer Proffer, CEO of media production company Meteor 17, which helped make the film. “My hat’s off to Don for writing something this magnificent. My job was to bring it to life.”
There are also interviews with musicians — Garth Brooks, “Weird Al” Yankovich and Brian Wilson, among them — as well as Valens’ sister, Connie, and actor Peter Gallagher, whose character’s death on “Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist” preceded an on-screen performance of “American Pie.” The British singer Jade Bird, Cuban-born producer Rudy Perez and Spanish-language singer Jencarlos Canela speak to how the song has resonated far past America.