Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Hallelujah for American Pie

I kicked off this past week’s program with a pair of songs that are the ostensible subjects of two new documentaries I’d seen earlier in the week. The first, The Day the Music Died: The Story of Don McLean’s American Pie, is about the hit title track from McLean’s 1971 album; the other, Halelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song, explores the very much non-hit from Cohen’s 1984 album Various Positions. Neither film is the first to take the story of a single song as inspiration for what is otherwise a biopic; the one that leaps most quickly to mind for me is 1988’s Imagine: John Lennon, which used footage from the recording sessions for that song as a framing device for the first feature film about a former Beatle. But I’m a sucker for rock ‘n roll documentaries, so with affection for both “American Pie” and “Hallelujah” (and a further connection to Leonard Cohen as a native Montrealer) I got to watching them.

It occurred to me that the two films could in some ways be seen as funhouse mirror images of each other. For starters, The Day the Music Died is streaming for home viewing on Paramount+, while Hallelujah is currently out only in limited theatrical release (I saw it at the Roxie in San Francisco). The former is built around recent interviews with Don McLean (presumably for the film itself), while Hallelujah features only archival encounters with its subject—though Cohen did give the project his formal blessing in 2014 and provided the filmmakers with access to his notebooks and more (he died in 2016).

The song-subjects themselves are also epics in curiously divergent ways. McLean says he wanted to write a “big song about America,” and so took a nationally and personally traumatic event—the 1959 plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the J.B. “The Big Bopper” Richardson—and looked outward at the American journey that ensued. “Hallelujah,” on the other hand, largely describes an inward-looking spiritual quest. Cohen famously said that he worked on the song for years and had written and discarded dozens of verses (many of which are shown in the film), while McLean explains how the bulk of “American Pie,” after he’d settled on the opening verse and chorus, came to him in a relatively concise burst of composition.

Even the recordings themselves proved to be different kinds of pivot-points for their singers. The sessions for “American Pie” comprised the bulk of the work for that album and did not truly come together to everyone’s satisfaction until producer Ed Freeman brought in Paul Griffin to play piano. As noted by producer John Lissauer, Leonard Cohen had been composing many of the songs for Various Positions on a tiny Casio keyboard, and the contemporary synth-y sound of the album very much broke from Cohen’s previous work (notwithstanding his Phil Spector-produced album of 1977, Death of a Ladies’ Man). The album turned out to be so divergent—and disappointing—to Cohen’s record label that they actually refused to release it in the United States, thereby relegating its centerpiece song to initial obscurity and its author, at least temporarily, to the musical wilderness. American Pie, on the other hand, shot to #1 and secured Don McLean a place in the modern American songbook.

Of course the afterlives of both “Hallelujah” and “American Pie” are less different from each other, and both films spend a good deal of time chronicling the huge impact each song had on other musicians and the culture at large. I got a particular kick out of the segment immediately following the dramatic high (or low?) point of Hallelujah—that is, the failure to launch of Various Positions—which features a mid-1980s Bob Dylan describing how the best music being made at the time was unlikely to be heard on the radio. Dylan and Cohen famously hung out in Paris during Dylan’s 1984 tour of Europe and engaged in what Cohen, in a contemporary interview in the film, calls “shop-talk.” Dylan was impressed enough by one of Cohen’s songs that four years later, when Dylan performed in Cohen’s hometown of Montreal, he played “Hallelujah” (and again later that year in Los Angeles, where Cohen was living). This was three years before John Cale’s cover that appeared on the Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan, itself the template for Jeff Buckley’s 1993 recording that set the song on its path into the modern American songbook (with an important stop in Disney’s Shrek along the way).

Listeners to Fog City Blues may be aware that I have, to say the least, a bit of a Bob Dylan obsession. And while it may be harder to find the Dylan in Don McLean’s story—in The Day the Music Died, McLean specifically refutes the interpretation of “the jester” in his lyric as referring to Dylan—there is a connection. When Dylan’s Time Out of Mind won the Grammy for Album of the Year in 1998, in his acceptance speech Dylan noted how when he was 16 or 17 he’d seen Buddy Holly perform at the Duluth National Guard Armory: "I was three feet away from him and he looked at me. And I just have some kind of feeling that he was … with us all the time when we were making this record.” That Duluth show took place just days before the music died after the fateful final concert in Clear Lake, Iowa. For what it’s worth there’s an even more direct musical connection: the same Paul Griffin whose gospel-infused piano pushed the recording of “American Pie” over the finish line also played piano on Dylan’s first two albums with backing musicians, 1965’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited, which of course includes Dylan’s own meisterwerk, “Like A Rolling Stone.”

For better or for worse, the bit that tickled me most in either movie was seeing a couple of shots of the choir loft in the Montreal synagogue that Leonard Cohen’s family belonged to and where I actually sang as a baritone for three years in high school. But that parochial connection aside, both movies were satisfying in their own ways—not least because the music in both is so meaningful and resonant.

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