Review: Netflix Doc The Greatest Night in Pop Goes Behind the Mic for the Creation of “We Are the World”
I was never a huge fan of the song “We Are the World,” but any time that video started playing on MTV, I dropped what I was doing and watched it obsessively, waiting for my favorite singers, memorizing the exact moment when one singer stepped back from the microphone for their solo and another stepped up to it. I tried to figure out why some of the singers who appeared in the 46-artist choir didn’t appear in other places in the video. But more than anything, I wondered how whoever was in charge of this thing got all of these musicians together in one room without the floor collapsing under the tremendous weight of so much talent and ego.
Nearly all of the biggest names around—Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Daryl Hall, Huey Lewis, and so many more, all under the gaze of producer Quincy Jones—got together late one night in 1985 after the live broadcast of the American Music Awards (which Richie hosted). Why weren’t Madonna and Prince there? Well, the documentary The Greatest Night in Pop tells us (hell, Prince gets more mentions in this film than some of those who actually participated). Anyone wondering how the very talented Sheila E. (who was opening for Prince on the Purple Rain tour at the time) got an invite to this recording session has that answered: basically, she was bait for Prince. It’s all in this highly satisfying film, from director Bao Nguyen (Live From New York!, Be Water), which goes beyond the gossipy fluff (which is also here) to get to the heart of what these artists were attempting to do, how close the hours-long session came to not coming together, and who was so drunk he almost ruined the recording.
Using Richie as something of a guide through the entire process of writing (he co-wrote the song with Jackson) and recording “We Are the World,” the doc moves us through how the artists were gathered (in a time before email or cell phones), how the UK Band Aid African famine relief song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” served as an inspiration and motivation (project creator Harry Belafonte, as well as Richie and Jackson, wanted more Black faces singing to save Africans than their British counterparts), and how Jones pushed people to nail their parts even as the sun was coming up. (But still, no one explains why Dan Aykroyd was there!) The raw footage shot of the recording session is extraordinary, seeing superstars mingling with superstars (and a few very popular newcomers), most of whom were just as in awe of this collection of faces as we are. A few of those at the recording are interviewed today, and their recollections provide even more incredible and hilarious stories to chew on.
The film also examines the idea of the artist/activist, which was a fairly new concept in the mid-1980s. Band Aid organizer Bob Geldof even popped into the American sessions to give some words of encouragement and a reminder as to why they were all there. Truly, the ’80s was perhaps one of the more bizarre times in the history of popular music, so the eclectic nature of this assortment of singers (dubbed USA for Africa) maybe shouldn’t come as a total surprise. Even the most cynical among us and those with musical tastes that venture well beyond popular music can’t help but be impressed with the effort, even if the song still rings hollow today. There’s perhaps a bit too much patting on the back in the film, but the single and the album it was contained on (which featured a new song by Prince, among others) raised hundreds of millions of dollars for the cause, and the collaboration made a bit of history in the process. As we near the recording’s 40th anniversary, The Greatest Night in Pop Music is a worthy reminder of one helluva day.
The film is now streaming on Netflix.
Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film (SlashFilm.com) and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.