Paramount Plus documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie, about the 1971 song that touches on Buddy Holly, American history in the ‘60s and a Chevy that gets driven to the levee, examines how the song went from a thought in Don McLean’s head to one that redefined rock ‘n’ roll, and how that thought first entered the songwriter’s head.
Growing up outside New York City, McLean was a Buddy Holly fan as a kid, and recalled learning of the young rock star’s death, along with Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, in a plane crash in rural Iowa in 1959. McLean saw the heartbreaking story in the newspapers he was delivering.
“It was my guy who was killed,” McLean said.
He went on to be a disinterested student in high school and college, more focused on music than his education. McLean got his start playing with Pete Seeger, performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969, a year after graduating college. A Seeger song, with “bye bye” in the chorus, influenced McLean’s chorus in “American Pie.”
McLean breaks down how the song came to be. “I want to write a song about America, but I don’t want to write a song like anybody ever wrote about America before,” he said.
“American Pie” is close to nine minutes long, with numerous detailed choruses. McLean said the verses came to him in about an hour.
The film then depicts McLean playing it live, for the first time, at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, struggling to recall all the verses and later laboring to record it in the studio with session musicians and producers.
Once that all came together, there was the challenge of getting such a long song played on the radio, where the norm was more like three minutes.
The Day the Music Died checks in with musicians who’ve been influenced by “American Pie”, including Seeger himself, Garth Brooks (the song means “a million different things to a million different people,” Brooks said), Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys, country act Home Free and even Weird Al Yankovic.
The documentary spends ample time at the Iowa farm where Holly’s plane went down and hears from Ritchie Valens’s sister about the song that memorialized the rock stars’ deaths, as she and McLean share a heartfelt moment. Ed Freeman, who owns the farm, describes the song as “a eulogy for a dream that didn’t take place.”
After McLean explains various lyrics, and leaves others up to the listener to figure out, the film culminates with him playing a concert at the Surf Ballroom, where Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper played hours before their fateful crash.
One may get a bit tired of “American Pie” after a 90-minute study of it, but one will also hear new things in it after watching The Day the Music Died.
Harvey Mason Jr., who was executive music producer on Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist, details the song turning up in a season finale for the music-driven series. “As a songwriter, it’s the kind of song you dream about writing,” he said, “that has meaning, that has depth, that has relevance, and is something that continues to be relevant to generations ongoing.” ■
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Michael Malone, senior content producer at B+C/Multichannel News, covers network programming, including entertainment, news and sports on broadcast, cable and streaming; and local broadcast television. He hosts the podcasts Busted Pilot, about what’s new in television, and Series Business, a chat with the creator of a new program, and writes the column “The Watchman.” He joined B+C in 2005. His journalism has also appeared in The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Playboy and New York magazine.