On February 3, 1959, the music died when rising American rock and roll artists Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson were killed in a plane crash, just minutes after taking off.
The shock of that event, the tectonic shift it had on a young Don McLean, and the story of how it later influenced his biggest hit “American Pie” is documented in the new documentary The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s ‘American Pie’ (Paramount+).
Following a similar script to the 96-page American Pie bookazine, which was released earlier this year honoring the 50th anniversary of the release of the song and album, featuring McLean’s own stories and photos throughout the years, The Day Music Died documents the people, memories and life events around the making of one of the greatest American songs.
“It took 10 years to write ‘American Pie’ and to put that album together because, throughout those 10 years, I was harboring this yearning, I guess you could say, for Buddy Holly’s music and the sadness over his departure,” McLean told American Songwriter. In the film, McLean, who grew up in New Rochelle, New York, remembers the cold winter morning when he opened the batch of newspapers he had to deliver and saw the news of the crash that killed Holly, Valens, and Richardson all over the front pages. “It was my guy who was killed,” said McLean in the film. “Buddy was now dead. I was in absolute shock. I read the whole story. I think I might have actually cried. It was that personal.”
Soon after, McLean’s uncle told him that his father had died. “That hurt for a really long time,” said McLean in the film. “It was like the happy ’50s were over.”
The other key moment in the formation of “American Pie” was the state of America at the time. “I wanted to write a big song,” McLean shared with American Songwriter. “We were in the middle of a huge upheaval in the United States: drugs, the war in Vietnam, civil rights, cities on fire, bodies coming home every day from the war in Vietnam. I wanted to write a big song about America, and when I fused the death of Buddy Holly with these ideas, that’s when that song became what it was, but it took 10 years for me to wait for that moment to do that.”
In the film, the viewer follows McLean from the very beginning, from his earlier years through the decade-long journey of American Pie, from getting the album published, to the production of the song, and a breakdown of its lyrics. “It’s me starting from scratch, and all my travails,” said McLean. “Everybody was against me. ‘Rolling Stone’ magazine tried to ruin me. There was all sorts of headwinds against ‘American Pie,’ because of the rock writers who said, ‘Well, he’s not rock and roll,’ but what I turned out to be was Don McLean, and that’s the thing that they’ve had to figure out and realize over the years.”
Though “American Pie” is often considered a folk song, McLean says he never wanted to be a pop singer, a rock singer, or a folk singer. “There are only two artists in folk music that I really admired as artists and that was Josh White, and the other were The Weavers, and the rest of them were all kind of amateurs,” said McLean. “I didn’t really enjoy their music and I thought they were out of tune most of the time, and they certainly couldn’t write songs.”
He adds, “Dylan came right out of the same thing as I did. He was kicking around Greenwich Village and starting to get attention, writing these great songs, and then became the huge entity that he has become,” said McLean. “It was a great place to be but not to spend any long amount of time there because it really wasn’t going anyplace.”
Throughout the decades, the classic song has been reinterpreted by everyone from Garth Brooks, who is interviewed in the film, along with other renditions by Madonna, Jon Bon Jovi, John Mayer, and Weird “Al” Yankovic. The song is “about that drive of independence, that drive of discovery, of believing anything is possible,” said Brooks in the film.
Produced by Spencer Proffer of media production company Meteor 17, The Day Music Died moves through all the cultural, and socio-political moments in American history that are as relevant now as they were when the song was first released. “There are interchanges with all stripes of people from many walks of life, including major celebrities, music icons, current breaking artists, and industry leaders,” said Proffer of the doc in a statement. “The film explores what ‘American Pie’ meant to people then, what it means to them now, and what it will mean to generations in the future.”