It is hard to overstate the impact that “American Pie” has had over it’s half-century life. A song that ostensibly talks about the February 3, 1959 ill-fated plane crash that took the lives of rising rock and roll stars Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, journalists and critics have written about “American Pie”‘s impact on American pop culture as an anthem that spoke not just to the then-current generation but to subsequent generations as well. The song has been covered by artists as diverse as Peter Seeger, Garth Brooks and Madonna. In what some would call the ultimate in pop culture validation, “Weird Al” Yankovic has parodied it, twisting the tune into “The Saga Begins,” a song spoofing the first of the Star Wars prequels. It has appeared in numerous films and televisions, even as recently as the first season finale of Zooey’s Extraordinary Playlist.
But no one seems to have done an in-depth look at the creation of the song, how singer/songwriter Don McLean, a skinny kid from the affluent suburb of New Rochelle, New York would grow up to write one of the most scathing indictments of the loss of the American Dream. Until now, that is with director Mark Moormann’s new documentary The Day The Music Died. And while McLean would state that the song just seemed to burst forth forth from him “like a genie from a bottle” during a song writing session, the truth is much more interesting and involved than just that.
Rather than opt for the rather dry and obvious approach of telling the story of the song in a straightforward, chronological narrative, Moormann interweaves the first half of the film recounting both the crash of the plane carrying Holly, Valens and the Big Bopper and McLean’s early life growing up in New Rochelle, New York with testimonials from musicians as to the power the song seems to exert over those who perform it and those who are just hearing it.
Moormann and his crew have done some great research and cover their topic with remarkable depth. Not only do they talk to McLean, the song’s studio producer and numerous musicians, but they find the space to include people like Valens’s sister and the family farmer who owns the field where Holly, et al’s plane crashed.He also fills out film with a good deal of both recreation footage as well as actual archival film and audio, all used to good effect. It is hard not to be moved by listening to the actual demo tape of McLean spontaneously writing the song, knowing what the future holds in store those few simple lines he sings.
Interestingly enough, there are no music journalists or pop culture critics or historians interviewed for this film. It allows Moormann to concentrate on the song and the events that inspired it rather than the impact it has had.
The second to the last part of the film, though, may be the most insightful or the most frightening, depending on your point of view. For fifty years critics, music historians and just plain fans of the song have argued, debated and analyzed the sprawling imagery of the “American Pie.” What was autobiographical and what was poetic license? Is “the King” a reference to Elvis? Is “the Jester” referring to Bob Dylan? Well, McLean answers those questions and more as he breaks down what he meant in much of the song’s visual symbolism. While it may finally settle some bar bets over what certain verses are really saying, it does carry the potential of robbing the song of some of its allegorical power to span generations.