At one point as the supergroup dubbed “USA for Africa” was assembling on January 28, 1985, at A&M Recording Studios in Hollywood, Paul Simon reportedly joked, “If a bomb lands on this place, John Denver’s back on top.” Such was the magnitude of mid-‘80s music luminaries on hand, everyone from Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick and Tina Turner through Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Billy Joel and beyond. Unless you’ve spent your whole life under a rock, sometime or other, the resulting charity single, “We Are the World,” has likely gotten stuck in your head. The song achieved instant global saturation, selling out the initial run of a million copies in the first weekend of its release.
Of course, this is pre-downloads, so we’re talking actual vinyl sales, and it’s audiences with fond recollections of those analog days and the music stars who dominated the charts during the period that will eat up The Greatest Night in Pop, a celebratory Netflix doc about the making of the song.
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Directed by Bao Nguyen, whose similarly archive-rich study of the life and career of Bruce Lee, Be Water, premiered at Sundance in 2020, the conventionally straightforward film isn’t exactly packed with unexpected revelations. That is, unless you count Waylon Jennings bailing when Stevie Wonder started lobbying to sing a chorus in Swahili, or Sheila E., probably with good cause, feeling she was being exploited as leverage to get to Prince, which didn’t work. But, as recounted by the song’s co-writer, Lionel Richie, producer Quincy Jones and others who were part of the recording, it’s an engaging blitz of nostalgia guaranteed to leave core viewers misty-eyed.
The song was hatched in the immediate wake of the similar U.K. endeavor that birthed the charity single “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” That smash hit was sung by a platoon of British and Irish music stars known as Band Aid, assembled by Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof and Midge Ure, of Visage and Ultravox. The proceeds of that song went to famine relief in Ethiopia, at that time probably the most pressing humanitarian crisis in the world.
Harry Belafonte, who was not only music and movie royalty but an elder statesman of civil rights and social activism, recognized the glaring Band Aid optics of “white folks saving Black folks.” Richie quotes him as saying, “We don’t have Black folks saving Black folks. That’s a problem.”
Once the initial idea of an all-star concert transitioned to a recording based on the Brit model, Richie was brought in by well-connected music manager Ken Kragen to write the song along with Jones to produce. They originally wanted Wonder to co-write but when he remained unreachable, with the clock ticking — remember this was before cellphones and email — they turned to Michael Jackson instead.
Richie and Jackson were old friends from their Motown days, when the former led The Commodores and the latter was the breakout star of The Jackson 5. As Richie recalls it, their collaborative efforts at Jackson’s home were littered with stalled attempts and weird animal encounters before they finally cooked up an ideally catchy song with a built-in uplift, just in the nick of time before the scheduled recording.
Once big names started signing on, others quickly followed, and most of the key holdouts had the valid excuse of being on tour elsewhere. Or of being incompatible with others in the room. One insider notes they could get Cyndi Lauper or Madonna, not both together. Prince was ruled out after he demanded a guitar solo to be recorded in a separate room, declining to mingle with the starry throng, a requirement on which Jones insisted.
If you’re hoping for some shade between Jackson and Prince you won’t find it here, beyond footage of The Purple One triumphing at the American Music Awards in categories where they were both competing. But glimpses of Jackson on the night of the recording are kind of poignant, showing him in his own eccentric bubble, trying out different phrasing and wording in his sweet vocal tones.
The time-sensitive nature of the project stemmed from the need to make the recording happen the same night as the AMAs, when so many big names were in town. Richie was also hosting the awards that year (not to mention winning a handful) and while there’s no self-glorification in his recollections, his “All Night Long” stamina — sorry, couldn’t resist — seems remarkable. Up until stars started rolling up at A&M around 10 p.m., Richie and Jones weren’t sure who would show. The actual recording wrapped around 7 a.m. the following day.
While it would perhaps have been interesting to know more about the session musicians who worked on the track, the doc gleans input from the recording engineer and vocal arranger, as well as the cameraman hired to shoot the music video — all of them offering their services gratis, even if not everyone knew that in advance.
Music geeks will enjoy the discussion of how the solo lines were allocated and the running order established. In many cases, that involved contrasting styles, like Springsteen’s “dirty” sound followed by Kenny Loggins’ “clean” vocals, or Turner’s low notes and Steve Perry’s high range, or Lauper’s raucous power segueing into Kim Carnes’ gravelly rasp. Just the challenge of blending, say, Warwick’s velvet sophistication with Willie Nelson’s down-home warmth made for an intricate production challenge.
Springsteen, Warwick, Lauper and Loggins are among the surviving participating artists wistfully looking back in newly filmed interviews, along with Smokey Robinson and Huey Lewis, who is both stoked and nervous to be handed Prince’s solo spot.
Lewis at one point observes that Jones had to be both producer and psychiatrist to keep such a diverse panoply of artists focused. To that end, his master strokes would appear to have been posting a notice that read, “Check your ego at the door,” and bringing in Geldof, just back from a tour of Ethiopia, to remind everyone of their purpose with a sobering account of the deprivation he had witnessed there.
There’s talk of Jones “putting out fires,” and certainly evidence of people in the room growing tired and impatient as the night wore on. But any real drama remains undocumented. Mostly, tensions seem to have been defused with humor. Wonder’s insistent Swahili idea prompts someone to tell him, “Stevie, they don’t speak Swahili in Ethiopia.” And Dylan looks utterly miserable until Wonder shows his gift for mimicry by singing a phrase Bob Dylan-style, showing the veteran folk-rock troubadour how he might find a way in.
What will be touching for most fans are the moments of communal spirit, such as a tipsy Al Jarreau leading everyone in a rousing “Day-O’ singalong as a tribute to Belafonte. Just watching Ray Charles beam with joy is magic.
Editors Nic Zimmermann, Will Znidaric and David Brodie do a tidy job threading together the reams of archival material into a brisk 90 minutes and change, including footage from the AMAs, and from music videos and concerts of the era, in addition to extensive video from the recording studio, where Richie returns to do his present-day interviews. There’s also a lovely series of black and white hangout shots on the end credits, which is the first time the song is heard in its entirety.
Nobody is making a case for “We Are the World” as a masterwork of pop songwriting craftsmanship, but Springsteen sums it up by calling it less an aesthetic creation than a tool to accomplish something. The message of collective compassion, of helping those less fortunate, is quite moving. The fact that the song has raised $80 million to date for humanitarian causes in Africa — double that in today’s dollars —speaks for itself.
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