In the new Netflix documentary “The Greatest Night in Pop,” directed Bao Nguyen, the curtain is lifted on the backstory of the recording of the historic all-star anthem, “We Are the World.” Recorded following the American Music Awards in 1985, the song was punctuated by many of the bestselling artists in the world, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, and many more.
Using never-before-seen archival footage and brand-new interviews with artists and producers, the film takes viewers on a dramatic journey, starting with the original idea propelled by legendary artist Harry Belafonte to raise money for the fame in Ethiopia. It then shifts to the assignment of songwriting to Richie and Jackson by producer Quincy Jones. Some stories, such as the rock artists trying to find their place in the power ballad, are confirmed and other stories are shared, including recruiting artists and bands who were not available. Interesting trivia such as arranging where people stood to the complexity of fitting the session time into one night are studied, helping music lovers go deeper into the story than ever before.
Especially poignant is the footage of legendary musicians who have passed, such as Jackson, Turner, Ray Charles, and Belafonte. Their vocals are timeless, along with their generosity of spirit in lending their talents and platforms to such a good cause. Jones recalls that Jackson, who was at the top of his career and guides the song, was reluctant to even appear on the song and the video because of overexposure. Jones, who talked him into joining, said it would have been the biggest mistake of his career. The famed producer also wrote a note for all artists that would be the mantra of the evening, “Check your ego at the door.”
Still, when Charles walks in, Kenny Loggins recalled, “That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in.” As the artists were laid bare without managers or assistants, they greeted each other and even solicited autographs.
While the song wasn’t considered a gospel song, it had plenty of influences, from vocal arranger Tom Bahler’s churchgoing roots to the song lyrics, “As God has shown us by turning stones to bread.” Although that’s not biblically accurate, it’s perhaps a good example of pop theology itself. I also sang the song in a youth choir at our church’s state convention and I believe we revised the words to that second verse along with “We are God’s children.”
As a longtime music lover and child of the 80’s, “The Greatest Night in Pop” was like a gift to me, helping reconnect me with a time when I was familiar with the music stars of the world were and a more optimistic era. This was a time when those from all backgrounds stepped outside of the comfort zone and showed the world a beacon of unity, if only for a night. What I wouldn’t give to have been a fly on the wall. Thanks to Nguyen, we have the next best thing.
“The Greatest Night in Pop” is currently streaming on Netflix.