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‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ Review: Starstruck and Irresistible

“The Greatest Night in Pop” is a documentary for anyone who loves “We Are the World” (that would include me), or even for those who look at that legendary charity single with some serious questions but are fascinated by the phenomenon of it (that’s me as well). In a sense, “We Are the World” always was a documentary — the famous music video that captures the song as it was being recorded, in an into-the-night session that took place at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles immediately after the American Music Awards on January 28, 1985. (The organizers of USA for Africa realized that only by pinning the recording session to that night could they be sure all the stars they needed for the song would be in one place at the same time.)

That music video has always been more than just a video. It’s a pop-stars-reveal-themselves psychodrama in miniature. That’s part of its beauty. And “The Greatest Night in Pop,” which premiered at Sundance and drops on Netflix today, allows us to revel in that vibe and extend it, as it presents a backstage look at all these icons coming together and letting their hair down for the sake of something greater. (Not that it’s ever that simple.) Directed by Bao Nguyen, the documentary, with Lionel Richie at its center (he’s our chief nostalgist and tour guide), is certainly “celebratory,” but it’s also honestly assembled and intensely pleasurable. No longtime fan of the song should miss it, but younger viewers may find themselves intoxicated as well. “The Greatest Night in Pop” pulls back the curtain on the perpetual smoke screen of music-god celebrity.         

There were three crucial dimensions to “We Are the World.” The first, of course, was the song’s reason for being: to save the lives of Ethiopians victimized by famine. “We Are the World,” which sold 20 million copies (it became the ninth biggest physical single of all time), raised more than $60 million in humanitarian aid for that cause, making it the ne plus ultra of the pop-stars-play-for-you-out-of-compassion movement that had come into being, in 1971, with George Harrison’s Concert for Bangladesh. “We Are the World” saved real lives, and beyond that it nudged the systemic suffering in Africa to a place of greater prominence on the global media map.

At the same time, the song channeled the slightly uncomfortable fusion of selflessness and self-glorification that pop and rock ‘n’ roll stars inevitably projected during the charity-rock-event ’80s. This kind of thing has been debated for years and I won’t belabor it except to note that the contradiction is perfectly embodied in the line “There’s a choice we’re making,/We’re saving our own lives.” That’s supposed to mean: Everyone on earth is connected, and we’re at one with the people we’re saving. But it also says, unintentionally yet it still says it, that we’re saving our own lives because the song, at heart, is as much about us: our generosity, our glow, our powers of salvation. That line isn’t one-tenth as bad as the colonial mindset at the heart of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (“But tonight, thank God it’s them instead of you”), but it was enough to register as…a reveal.

The second dimension of “We Are the World” is the song itself. You can call it sentimental and simple (the music critic Greil Marcus dismissed it as a Pepsi jingle), you can say that it lays on the one-world-united-for-the-children idealism a bit thick…but all that said, it remains an extraordinary song. In 40 years, I have never grown tired of hearing it. There’s something singularly sweet in the chords, in the lilt of it all, in the way that the chorus creates an elemental harmonic rush of heart-and-soul satisfaction. And, of course, there’s a lovely simplicity to it because it was designed, uniquely, to be a frame for all those voices. It achieves moments of transcendence, and it’s the singers who bring it, line by line, to the mountaintop.

But the third dimension of “We Are the World” is the video. It was ubiquitous and unique — essentially a live recording (though assembled out of various takes), and as we saw those stars gather on tiers in front of the mics, as if they were part of a church choir, there was more drama and excitement to what they were doing, to how they revealed themselves as individuals, than you saw in almost any other music video. It was their artistry (the singing) and their image projection (the pop star’s other art form) melded into something singular and luscious — and, yes, admirable (with the aforementioned caveat).

“The Greatest Night in Pop” reveals that the song came together in a fraught and frantic way. It was spearheaded by Harry Belafonte, who’d been impressed by the success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” (released in December 1984) and wanted to put together an American version of the same idea. He enlisted Ken Kragen, the music manager, TV producer, and fundraiser, one of whose clients was Lionel Richie. These three, along with the producer maestro Quincy Jones, became the core of the operation, with Richie, then at the apex of his stardom, pushing the energy ahead. Michael Jackson agreed to write the song with Richie (they tried to enlist Stevie Wonder as a co-writer, but he wasn’t great at returning phone calls), and at this point that was enough star wattage to begin attracting other legends.

Getting Springsteen was huge, since he wasn’t a “pop for charity” kind of guy — and his “Born in the U.S.A.” tour was finishing literally the night before the fabled recording session was to take place. But as Springsteen, interviewed in the documentary, explains it, he’d long thought the famine issue needed attention, so he was like: Yes. Once the reclusive Bob Dylan signed on, a message went out. If Dylan was in, who could say no to this?

Richie was hosting the American Music Awards that year, and he also wound up being the evening’s big winner, taking home six awards (a doubling up of roles that in hindsight seems almost funny; it would never be allowed today). But for everything on his plate, he was still caught up short when he learned that the recording session would take place that very night. He and Michael Jackson has been dawdling, playing around as they sat in Jackson’s house working on the song, distracted by Michael’s pets (including his large snake). Suddenly, they had almost no time to write it — and with all those stars having now signed on, the pressure was quadrupled. What if the song they came up with was meh? It would have been a colossal embarrassment.

But the song they improvised into existence was not meh, and Quincy Jones loved it. He went to work (the film doesn’t make it clear enough that in a preliminary recording session, held on Jan. 21, the backing tracks were laid down without the singers), setting the stage for Jan. 28. Who would show up? The A&M studio location was treated as a state secret, out of fear that if performers like Dylan saw a mob, they would flee. But it all worked smoothly. Everyone got there. Quincy Jones, a shrewd psychologist, hung up a sign that said, “Check your ego at the door,” and he had Bob Geldof deliver a short speech, which we see, about African famine that was so sobering it exerted an aesthetic effect. These artists were now truly going to be singing, from their very souls, about the cause.

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, as if her intensity was giving the mic a meltdown. No one could figure it out, until the problem 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, having no idea how to sing his solo line, and getting help from Stevie Wonder, who was a great mimic and 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 the red-state star Waylon Jennings was out the door.

Or Sheila E., interviewed in the film, feeling like she’d 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 felt out of his depth already, 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, the extraordinary couplet of Steve Perry and Daryl Hall, and Ray Charles.)

Did it all really add up to “the greatest night in pop?” There’s no more truth to that than there is to the idea that a bunch of well-meaning, image-conscious music stars could create a paradigm shift in how we see and treat world hunger. Yet “We Are the World” was a great song that endured, and as a project it was on the side of the angels. What this movie creates in the viewer isn’t so much a grand surge of ’80s nostalgia as a longing for a time — any time — when pop stars could let their guard down and be this human.

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