50 years after he wrote the song, Don McLean is ready to tell the story of “American Pie.”
The singer-songwriter has announced plans for a feature documentary, “The Day The Music Died: The Story Behind Don McLean’s American Pie,” set for release at the end of 2021.
The project will also inform a new stage play that will revolve around McLean’s deep catalog (which includes “Vincent,” “Castles in the Air” and “Wonderful Baby”), as well as a children’s book based on his most famous song.
There’s good reason for all of this activity. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the release of “American Pie,” an eight-and-a-half-minute epic that chronicled – somewhat cryptically – the politics, youth culture and defining events of the ’50s and ’60s.
“I was looking for a big idea to write a big song, about a big country,” McLean tells The Tennessean. “And I didn’t want to write ‘This Land is Your Land’ or ‘America the Beautiful’ or something like that. So I came up with this idea that politics and music influence one another and flow parallel together, forward.”
But even as the documentary aims to tell “the story behind” the song, it won’t crack the codes of its six dense verses – though the public generally agrees on many of its allusions, touching on everything from Buddy Holly and Bob Dylan to Altamont and Charles Manson.
At 74, McLean says he doesn’t want to turn analyzing the song into “a board game.”
“It’s not poetic, and I don’t want to do it. That’s been the reason why. But I am going to get behind the song, and I’m sure that I’ll reveal a whole lot about just how it was created, and what was going on in my life. It’ll be my story, also.”
“Don has a brilliant spiritual and practical view of what it meant to him, but everyone across the globe has made their own interpretation of what the words mean to them,” says Spencer Proffer, the documentary’s producer.
“And I think that’s kind of magical.”
Proffer also produced a 2015 documentary on Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope You Dance,” speaking to the likes of Maya Angelou, Brian Wilson and Vince Gill about the song’s impact. He anticipates a similar approach with “The Day The Music Died,” and points to the many prominent artists who have covered “American Pie” over the years, including Madonna and Garth Brooks.
Through interviews, they’ll explore “what (the song) meant to them then, what it means to them now, and what it will mean to generations in the future,” Proffer says.
“I think that’s really provocative, and I think you can only do it with a song this great and this deep, with an artist that’s this sensitive, like Don McLean.”
Development on the stage play will be helmed by Broadway producers Corey Brunish (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”) and Russell Miller, who’ve formed a joint venture with Proffer’s company. Proffer says they’re aiming for a 2022 debut.
“It’s going to be a story pretty much like my life has been,” McLean says. “And it’s going to be using many of my songs, as well as (“American Pie”) being the touchstone. So it’s got to be something that the average person is going to feel good about seeing, like ‘Jersey Boys’ or the Temptations show that’s out there now. But I hope it’ll be a little bit better than that…not too obvious and not too easy.”
Until the coronavirus shut down the concert industry, McLean had kept a busy touring schedule in recent years, including a performance at the Grand Ole Opry House in February. He sat down with Dan Rather for an in-depth discussion of “American Pie” earlier this year.
He’s also continued to deny allegations of abuse made by his ex-wife, Patrisha McLean, whom he divorced in 2016. Patrisha has talked about their relationship in a traveling exhibit about domestic violence, “Finding Our Voices,” and has established a non-profit of the same name.
For now, McLean says he’s enjoying the break that the coronavirus has imposed.
“I can’t believe I got to see a pandemic. It’s one more thing in my long life that I’ve experienced.”
He was 24 when he wrote “American Pie,” looking back on a decade defined by revolution and upheaval.
Asked about those who are that age now, in the midst of a momentous year, McLean says, “I think they need music very much right now.”
“We need songs that people can cling to, and get emotional security from. They’re not like buildings. Buildings can get knocked down. Statues get turned over. But songs live forever. You can ban my song if you want to, but there will be a million people that know it by heart.”