The Greatest Night in Pop (2024)

The Greatest Night in Pop Review

The Greatest Night in Pop


In 1985, on January 25th dozens of the most famous names in music met at a studio in LA. They set aside their egos and recorded a song for African famine relief that would change the course of global pop culture forever. The Greatest Night in Pop tells the story of how the world’s biggest supergroup was assembled before cell phones and email. United by different backgrounds but a shared desire, these artists came together to record “We Are the World,” written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie two of the most important musicians of the twentieth century. The film includes never-before-seen footage from early planning stages and writing sessions with Richie and Jackson, as well as an inside look at Henson Studios where “We Are the World” was recorded. This legendary evening featured such luminaries as Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick and Huey Lewis who share memories alongside musicians; engineers; production crew about what is widely considered one history’s most fabled nights .            


“The Greatest Night in Pop” is a documentary for anyone who loves “We Are the World” (that would be me) or even has serious doubts about that iconic charity single but is entranced by its phenomenon (also me). In some ways it always was: The music video that became so famous which shows you what happens when you record a song into-the-night during an all-star recording session that takes place at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles immediately after the American Music Awards on Jan. 28, 1985 (the USA for Africa people realized they could only get all these stars to come together to make one song if they did it this night) has always been more than just a video. It’s a pop-culture psychodrama in miniature; that’s part of its beauty.

And “The Greatest Night in Pop,” which premiered at Sundance and drops on Netflix today, lets us bask in that vibe and extend it, as it provides a behind-the-scenes look at these icons (with Lionel Richie as our chief nostalgist and tour guide) coming together to let their hair down for a cause. (Not really.) Directed by Bao Nguyen, this documentary is certainly “celebratory,” but it’s also honestly assembled, and intensely enjoyable. Anyone who has loved the song for years would be crazy to skip it; and younger viewers may get intoxicated by it too.    

“We Are the World” was three-dimensional. First and foremost, it was a song about saving Ethiopian lives during the famine. The record sold 20 million copies (the ninth best-selling single of all time) and raised over $60 million for that cause alone, making this pop-stars-play-for-you-out-of-compassion thing which began in 1971 with George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh look like small potatoes by comparison: “We Are the World” saved actual lives, moreover nudging Africa’s systemic suffering toward a higher place on the global media map.

At the same time, “We Are the World” expressed something about charity-rock-event ‘80s pop and rock stars’ odd mix of selflessness and self-glorification. I won’t belabor this point since it’s been beaten to death over the years, but there is no better example than that line “There’s a choice we’re making,/We’re saving our own lives,” which is supposed to mean: We are one with those we save because everyone on earth is connected. But it also says, inadvertently yet unmistakably so, that we’re saving our own lives too because let’s face it this song is really about us: our generosity, our glow, our powers of salvation. One-tenth as bad as Band Aid’s colonialist “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (“But tonight thank God it’s them instead of you”), but still a tell.

The second dimension of “We Are the World” was just how good of a song it is. You can call it sentimental (Pepsi jingle said Greil Marcus), simple; lay on thick with one-world-united-for-the-children idealism if want but Jesus Christ what an amazing 40-year-old record! I never get tired listening to it; there are sweet chords and lilty verses; sung-through chorus causes elemental harmonic rush heart-and-soul satisfaction every time it hits my ears; also it’s got that lovely blank simplicity because all those voices were meant to be on it together. There are transcendent moments here, and the singers take each other up line by line until they reach heaven.

But the third dimension of “We Are the World” is that video. It was everywhere and nowhere basically a live recording, but made from multiple takes and when those stars came together in front of their mics, standing on tiers as if they were in some kind of church choir well, there was just more drama and excitement about what they were doing, how they showed themselves as individuals in that moment, than I’ve ever seen from any other music video. This was their art (singing) and image projection (pop star’s other art form) combined into one thing that tasted like heaven or maybe ice cream sundae with cherry on top (caveat above).

The song being referred to as “The Greatest Night in Pop” was created under the most stressful and chaotic of circumstances. Harry Belafonte was the one who started it all after seeing how well “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (released December 1984) did and wanting to do an American version of the same thing. He brought on Ken Kragen, a music manager, TV producer, fundraiser, and one of whose clients were Lionel Richie. These three joined up with producer kingpin Quincy Jones, with Richie who was at the height of his superstardom driving the energy forward. Michael Jackson agreed to write the song with Richie (they tried to get Stevie Wonder to also be a co-writer but he wasn’t good at returning their phone calls), and that was enough star power at this point to start attracting other stars.

Getting Springsteen was important because he wasn’t a “pop for charity” type and because his “Born in the USA” tour was ending literally the night before everyone would gather in-studio for this session that would become famous forever. But as Bruce says in the doc, he’d been thinking about famine relief for years; he knew it deserved attention: Yes. Once Bob Dylan signed on (he had spent much of his career recoiling from causes), word went out: If Dylan’s in, who can say no?

Richie was hosting the American Music Awards that year; he wound up winning six awards (a doubling-up of roles that seems almost comical now could you imagine?). But even so, he wasn’t fully prepared for what happened next: When he learned that they were going to record it that night It had been going so smoothly! He and Michael had been dawdling around all day at Jackson’s house where they were working on some songs (for distraction purposes MJ owned things exotic pets like a big snake). Now they had almost no time to write it and with all those stars having signed on, the pressure was quadrupled. What if the song was meh? It would have been a disaster.

But what they came up with was not meh, and Quincy Jones loved it. He got busy (the film does not make clear enough that during a preliminary recording session held on Jan. 21, the backing tracks were laid down without the singers), setting up for Jan. 28. Who would come? The A&M studio location was kept secret like an underground disco, fearing that if Dylan saw a mob he would turn and run. But everything went off without a hitch. Everyone showed up. Quincy Jones hung a sign on the door that read “Check your ego at the door,” and Bob Geldof gave us one of his patented short speeches about African famine this one appears to have been so sobering I believe it exerted an aesthetic effect and now these artists were going to be singing from their souls about something greater than themselves.

The whole evening was filmed, and once we’re in the recording studio, hanging out with the musicians, every moment in the movie is revealing. Surveying the cornucopia of hitmakers as they were getting ready to record the chorus, Paul Simon (according to Kenny Loggins) quipped, “Whoa. If a bomb lands on this place, John Denver’s back on top.” The artists weren’t allowed to bring in any of their handlers, and that’s part of what accounts for their uniformly abashed and disarmed quality (“It was like first day of kindergarten,” says Richie). And the night, it turns out, was as full of great stories and telling incidents as you could want.

Like, for instance: a serious sound glitch kept happening each time Cyndi Lauper sang her big line. It was as if her intensity was giving the mic a meltdown. No one could figure it out until it turned out to be her jangling heaps of beaded bracelets, necklaces and earrings. Or Dylan who looks out of sorts and a bit nervous throughout has no idea how to sing his solo line and gets help from Stevie Wonder who was a great mimic who literally sings it for him as Bob Dylan would;and that’s how Dylan sang it. Or Al Jarreau, the one visibly troubled person on display , muffing his line over and over because he was celebrating on bottles of wine a little too early. Or Stevie Wonder trying to make the case that the song should include a line sung in Swahili at which point red-state star Waylon Jennings went through his own personal exit interview.

Or Sheila E., interviewed in the film , feeling like she had simply been invited as a lure to get Prince to come (the two were romantic partners at the time), and the whole drama that turned into. The enigmatic, control-freak Prince, who was at a nearby L.A. nightclub, said that he wanted to play a guitar solo for the song to be recorded in a separate studio area, an idea totally out of sync with the communal spirit of the session (and it was nixed by Quincy Jones). Or the genuine nerve-rack of Huey Lewis, who already felt out of his depth , having to come up with a line of harmony to infuse under Kim Carnes’ melody (it resulted, with Lauper’s topping cadence, in one of the song’s ecstatic peaks). Or Stevie volunteering to lead Ray Charles to the restroom and everyone there chuckling ,with sublime affection ,at “the blind leading the blind.”

We see most of this , and every bit of it makes you love these stars even more than you already did. And then there’s Bruce as singular in the recording session as he was on the song itself He’s a no-frills player, all present still with a hint of boyishness coming up and calling Bob Dylan “Dylan,” then laying down that vocal that can still give you chills the one that first lifts the song to a new level .(There are several next-level lifters on “We Are The World.” I would list them as follows: Michael Jackson, Bruce, Cyndi Lauper, Steve Perry and Daryl Hall [as an extraordinary couplet], Ray Charles.)

Was it actually “the best night in pop music” ever? No more than a bunch of good-hearted, image-conscious pop stars could create a new way of looking at or even beginning to treat world hunger. Still, “We Are the World” was a great song and remains so. As any record executive may tell you, this was not simply an album. It is still on the side of the angels. What this film gives us isn’t so much an ’80s fix as a wish for any era when people who are that famous could be this unguardedly human.

Watch The Greatest Night in Pop For Free On Gomovies.

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