Everyone knows that (almost) all of America’s biggest pop and rock stars crammed into a Los Angeles recording studio on the night of January 28, 1985 in order to lay down the vocals for the charity single “We Are the World,” a semi-tolerable earworm that would ultimately raise more than $68 million to provide food and relief aid to people suffering from starvation in Africa. What Bao Nguyen’s light and fluffy new Netflix documentary presupposes is that it would be entertaining to revisit the room where it happened and watch as this legendary session nearly devolved into an absolute shitshow that threatened to fall apart in 100 different ways due to the egos and insecurities of the singular artists involved.
And while “The Greatest Night in Pop” may not amount to anything more than a sanitized and somewhat masturbatory look back at one of the wildest get-togethers in the modern history of music (the film doesn’t offer any commentary deeper than “isn’t it so fucking crazy that this happened, and that we have it all on tape?”), there’s no denying that it’s a lot of fun to watch it all go down. Nguyen is even able to squeeze a little race-against-the-clock suspense from the heroic story of how Lionel Richie — a producer on this film, as well as its most frequent talking head — managed to assemble an unprecedented supergroup in just a few weeks time, and then stop them from walking out on each other during a marathon recording session that lasted, ahem, “all night long.”
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Richie, who seems very eager for another opportunity to reflect on his glory days (and why shouldn’t he be?), so eloquently sets the stage for “The Greatest Night in Pop” that Nguyen could have cut the next 40 minutes of his movie without viewers even missing a beat. “The greatest artists of a generation came together with all of our ego, and all of our talent, to save some lives,” Richie says to the camera, speaking to us from the same Hollywood recording studio where this story took place. And that’s the long and short of it, really.
Of course, that doesn’t stop Nguyen from rolling back the tape and revisiting the “Ocean’s Eleven”-esque saga of how Richie and co. pulled it off. Like many of the 20th century’s most spectacular moments of celebrity altruism, it started with Harry Belafonte, who was inspired by the success that Band Aid had with “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in the UK. And when Harry Belafonte was inspired by something, the effect was contagious; within hours of having the idea for an American benefit single, Belafonte had successfully enlisted ultra-powerful showbiz manager Ken Kragen to do the dirty work of making it happen.
Kragen died in 2021, but Nguyen’s all-access doc uses snippets of archival audio to ensure that his voice is heard. Even so, Richie is our primary narrator here, and “The Greatest Night in Pop” gets an extra bounce in its step whenever the “American Idol” judge is able to share his first-person memories of how this history was made. Richie entered the story when Kragen tapped he and Michael Jackson to write the song, and it’s amusing to hear Richie’s memories of how the two of them worked together, vague as they might be; he recalls the process’ initial lack of urgency (ironic in light of the flop-sweat that would follow), and the moment he was almost scared to death by one of the giant snakes that Jackson let roam free around his mansion.
Some of these anecdotes are more interesting than others, but all of them reflect the energy of a film in which iconic musicians are encouraged to genuflect on each other as peers and real people, their mutual celebrity canceling itself out until it feels like we’re watching regular friends remembering friends. Any specific insights are few and far between, but Nguyen seizes upon the idea that the mega-stars involved in “We Are the World” were made timid by the shared density of stuffing them all in the same room — by the shared recognition of something bigger than themselves, and the validation that came from being invited to participate in it.
But that warmth and fuzziness doesn’t really kick in until later, as the first half of this film is structured more like a heist. Not only did Kragen, Richie, and super-producer Quincy Jones have to sell the idea to everyone from Bob Dylan to Dan Ackroyd, they also had to coordinate their schedules to get them all in the same place at the same time — and without the press learning about the photo op of a lifetime.
Their only shot at it: The night of the American Music Awards, which would attract most of the music industry back to Los Angeles like a moth to a flame. It’s one thing to ask Bruce Springsteen to fly across the country the night after wrapping up the “Born in the USA” tour in Buffalo (the Boss is another of Nguyen’s celebrity interviews, and shares a nice detail or two about his relationship with Bob Dylan), but it’s another to ask a few dozen celebrities who’ve just sat through — and in some cases performed in — a Hollywood awards show to skip the after parties in order to work on someone else’s material until the sun came up.
Then again, Richie somehow managed to host the AMAs the same night he herded all these cats together to record “We Are the World,” so I guess he led by example. On a completely unrelated note, there is no mention of cocaine at any point in this documentary. Aside from Al Jarreau being a little sauced by the time he was supposed to record his verse, we’re meant to believe that all of these mega-stars were stone-cold sober. In Hollywood. At 4am. It’s possible that the pressure of performing a solo in front of Dionne Warwick, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder was enough to keep some of the other participants on their best behavior. Judging by how nervous that prospect made people like Huey Lewis (an especially amiable talking head), it’s also possible that every drug on Earth was required to get this song done in time. Nguyen doesn’t ask, and his interviewees probably wouldn’t tell.
“The Greatest Night in Pop” unsurprisingly shifts into a much higher gear during its second half, which is almost exclusively devoted to the marathon recording session itself. It’s endearing to watch Richie and Jones work overtime to keep dozens of showbiz’s biggest egos in check, and though everyone in the room knew that they were being filmed for the “We Are the World” music video that was being shot at the same time (its cinematographer is still high on the experience some 40 years later), the session was so long and grueling that most of these celebrities eventually lowered their guards. Hence the footage we have of Bob Dylan looking profoundly uncomfortable as he tries to figure out what the hell he’s doing there, and of Waylon Jennings xenophobically excusing himself from the room after Stevie Wonder suggested that one of the lyrics should be sung in Swahili. By the end of the night, there’s so little pretense left between these major stars that we see them asking each other for autographs.
Nguyen makes time for a few small patches of conflict, many of them hinging on Prince’s refusal to come to the studio, and Sheila E.’s suspicion that she was only invited into the group in an effort to bait the Purple One into participating. Sheila E. is one of the only interviewees who adds texture to this film instead of just warm authority; without her perspective, it would be a lot harder to shake the feeling that watching “The Greatest Night in Pop” might be less meaningful or entertaining than it would be to watch the hours and hours of raw footage from which it was cut. Then again, that might be too much to ask from a movie that threatens to ask if musicians can save the world, but ultimately proves more interested in whether Huey Lewis can find a way to harmonize with Cyndi Lauper and Kim Carnes. The answer to both of those questions? A semi-convincing but very enthusiastic “kind of!”
“The Greatest Night in Pop” premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Netflix starting on Monday, January 29.
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