You've Sung It Plenty in Bars. Now, This Song Gets Its Own Film

Paramount+ documentary on Don McLean's 'American Pie' is 'mandatory viewing' for fans
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Jul 19, 2022 9:09 AM CDT
You've Sung It Plenty in Bars. Now, This Song Gets Its Own Film
Don McLean poses in London in April 1982.   (AP Photo/John Glanvill, File)

Don McLean has listened for decades as people belted out his classic 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 told the AP from a tour bus heading to Des Moines, Iowa. "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," airing Tuesday on Paramount+.

It's mandatory viewing for McLean fans or anyone who's marveled at his sonic treasure. It also represents an elegant film blueprint for future deep dives into a song and its wider cultural relevance. The 90-minute 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 a suburban, middle-class home in New Rochelle, NY, when the crash occurred. Young McLean adored Elvis, Gene Vincent, and Bo Diddley but especially Holly, whose death deeply affected him. Years later, McLean would plumb that pain in "American Pie," baking in his own grief at his father's passing and writing a eulogy for the American dream.

He was creating his second album in 1971 while the US was mired in assassinations, anti-war protests, and civil rights marches. He thought he "needed a big song about America," and the first verse and melody seemed to just tumble out: "A long, long, time ago...." The 90-minute documentary incorporates news footage of the '70s and uses actors in re-creations. There are interviews with musicians—Garth Brooks, "Weird Al" Yankovic, and Brian Wilson among them—as well as Valens' sister, Connie. The line in the chorus "This'll be the day that I die" comes from the John Wayne film The Searchers. "If it starts young people thinking about Buddy Holly, about rock 'n' roll and that music, and then it teaches them maybe about what else happened in the country ... if that can happen, then the song really is serving a wonderful purpose and a positive purpose," McLean said. Much more here.

(More Don McLean stories.)

Get the news faster.
Tap to install our app.
Install the Newser News app
in two easy steps:
1. Tap in your navigation bar.
2. Tap to Add to Home Screen.