You’ve heard “We Are the World,” the perfectly cheesy 1985 pop song featuring more than 40 of the best pop superstars in the world at the time (and Dan Aykroyd, for some reason). But have you ever thought about the logistics of how that song was actually recorded? I sure hadn’t, but director Bao Nguyen’s latest documentary is catnip for process nerds like me, taking the audience through the song’s inception and incredible single-night recording session in irresistible fashion.
Inspired by the success of the UK supergroup Band Aid’s ability to raise money for famine relief in Ethiopia, the great Harry Belefonte cooked up an idea to do something similar stateside. Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, and Quincy Jones were enlisted to write and produce a song, and with those mega-talented names attached, it was easy to lure other superstars of the era — Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Billy Joel, Hall & Oates, Dionne Warwick, Huey Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, and Bob Dylan, just to name a few — to participate as well. In the pre-internet, pre-mobile phone era, organizing everyone’s schedules to find a date and time that worked for all of them should have been impossible, but Richie, the ringleader of this wild circus and this documentary’s most frequent talking head interview, and his team found a way to wrangle all of these disparate personalities and make it happen.
You won’t learn why Dan Aykroyd was there (seriously, how the heck did he end up singing next to Harry Belefonte?), but thanks to the fact that multiple camera operators were tasked with capturing the events of that fateful evening, “The Greatest Night in Pop” provides a complete portrayal of every major beat of the recording session. The fly-on-the-wall footage is the true star here, giving the audience a thorough look at what it was like to gather dozens of the biggest names in music (many of them ego-maniacs) and guide them toward a common purpose for a common cause. The best part of the footage, though, is seeing these powerhouse performers out of their element, intimidated in the presence of other legends, and slightly unsure of themselves and their abilities. It’s shockingly intimate — superstars of that era did not often project insecurity, so to see them in a state of nervousness humanizes people we’ve long viewed as icons. We also get to see many unused takes of their recordings, demystifying the process a little and reminding audiences that even though these people are legends in their field, it still takes work to achieve greatness.
There are aspects I would have liked to have seen focused on more (several participants are all but ignored given the hour and 36-minute runtime), but “The Greatest Night in Pop” certainly lives up to its name by delivering a jaw-dropping and occasionally even transcendent peek behind the curtain of one of music’s biggest moments. (Ben Pearson)
/Film Rating: 9 out of 10