Even those who don’t like Don McLean’s song “American Pie” have to admit that it’s a distinctive pop culture achievement. A nearly eight-and-a-half minute allegory that goes from mournful to infectious to mournful again, the monster 1971 radio hit is seemingly known to all generations and still sung at bar-closing times the world over.
That last fact is according to this reverent documentary about the song. Directed by Mark Moormann, the movie travels all over America to bring home the idea that “American Pie” says something profound about the country. It interweaves McLean’s biography with an account of the last days of the ’50s rockers Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper, creating a compelling narrative about the effect the plane crash that took their lives in 1959 had not just on young McLean, but American music itself. The movie then alternates with a history of McLean’s professional career (including his mentoring by the folk legend Pete Seeger) and scenes in which stars including Garth Brooks rhapsodize about the song.
Back in the day, kids analyzing the lyrics surmised that the bits about “the devil” expressed McLean’s moral and aesthetic disapproval of Mick Jagger. But to many of the interviewees here, including Brooks (who brought McLean onstage to sing it with him at his giant Central Park concert in 1997) and the Cuban-born musical artist Rudy Pérez, the song is “about freedom.”
The movie really comes alive when it is recreating the recording session for the song, showing how the ace studio keyboardist Paul Griffin transformed the tune with his energetic gospel-style piano.
McLean, who has frequently been portrayed as a prickly figure, and worse, puts on his most ingratiating mien here. And why not. Few musicians are given such generous opportunities to be docent to their legacies.
The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes. Watch on Paramount+.