It’s a song about legacy that ended up with a legacy all its own. “The Day the Music Died” is a documentary about “American Pie,” how it was created and written from Don McLean himself and his producer, as well as how it became a legendary piece of music.
This documentary is 94 minutes of entertaining history about the longest number one hit single in history. For those counting, the song runs eight minutes and 36 seconds.
Of all the songs that have a legacy worth spending more than an hour documenting, McLean’s American Pie has to be at the top or at least near the top.
There are two very general and broad reasons that this documentary might be worth your looking into. The first is that you are a fan of the song. The second is that you are interested in process. If those two things overlap, this is a can’t-miss film for you.
There are a few interesting things that McLean himself divulges which I, as a fan and someone interested in process, found eminently interesting.
“It all came out right through to the day the music died. Every single word I wrote just came like a genie out of a bottle. And I said to myself, ‘Wow, I got something.’ So I’m thinking as a few weeks went by, I don’t want this to be a ballad, so I got to write a hot chorus.”
I’m also glad he didn’t want it to be a ballad. The thing that I don’t know how to process is a sentiment from McLean talking about listening to The Buddy Holly Story: Volume 1 after his tragic death. At the time of the album’s release 1961, “…nobody talked about him ‘cause he was dead. Americans didn’t talk about dead people. Onward.”
Perhaps we have or haven’t moved on. While “American Pie” certainly brought the death of Buddy Holly, as well as Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, back into relevance with new generations introduced to their music, I’m not sure we’ve moved “onward.” Sure, we talk about death now, but we do it with the same attention span that this song works against. We talk about death in the same way we tweet with a character limit or use TikTok, embracing content almost because of its brevity and not its quality.
Yet, here is a full length documentary about one thing. Because it’s a song that has a legacy within a legacy, there’s quite a few layers to it. This isn’t just a larger than life “Storytellers.”
Garth Brooks may have succinctly put it best, saying, “I think you’re looking at a 50-year-old song that gets prettier every year, classier every year. This thing–this thing is timeless, because no one’s ever written anything like it since.“
Perhaps I have forgotten one thing. The soundtrack for this film is mostly “American Pie” but many versions of the song. If you’ve heard a cover, it may well be in this documentary, and why not?
I particularly love watching Don McLean clear up misconceptions about what other people have attempted to suss out of his lyrics. He doesn’t mince words either. He’s clear and to the point; he should know, he wrote it!
But the one thing that I find myself, as a hobbyist of both fiction and non-fiction literature from the 60s, is that Ed Freeman, the music producer on American Pie may be all too accurate portraying the song as a “eulogy for a dream that didn’t take place.”
“American Pie was really encapsulating the experience of a whole generation. We were witness to the death of the American dream. We went through both Kennedys being shot, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Vietnam, you know, hippies thought we were gonna take over the world with love and peace… And it didn’t happen.”
Personally, I don’t know that I can disagree. As dirges go, this one truly does have “a hot chorus.” As legacies go, American Pie has one that will probably endure as long as the legacies that it is honoring. This documentary does all of it justice.