No event in the history of pop music is so widely remembered and retrospectively underestimated as the 1985 recording of “We Are the World." Envisioned as a philanthropic drive by the likes of Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, and producer Ken Kragen, the single sold over 20 million copies, raised upwards of $168 million for famine relief in Africa (specifically, Ethiopia), and remains the definitive example of an all-star "charity single" for the benefit of worthy causes. It also became shorthand for cheesy Hollywood piousness and, when it swept the Grammy Awards the following year, mistaking good intentions for good art.
The Greatest Night in Pop, a new feature-length documentary from director Bao Nguyen, combines archival footage from the night the song was recorded with new interviews with Richie, Kragen, Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, and several others. In doing so, the film underlines the once-in-a-lifetime nature of the project, one which many have tried to replicate over the years.
Modern technology, like iPhones, Zoom, and streaming, would eliminate most of the logistical hurdles Richie and Kragen faced in assembling the greatest names in popular music in one studio for one night. But it also makes this kind of project even harder to do well. The well-intended but unavoidably chintzy Zoom events during the COVID-19 lockdown in 2020 and 2021— like the Stephen Sondheim birthday concert and the Gal Gadot-assembled "Imagine" video — are proof of this. There's no juice to those projects, no life; despite the star power, they feel hollow.
Say what you will about the lyrics to "We Are the World" (written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson on a tight deadline) or its first-world sentiments, but The Greatest Night in Pop presents "We Are the World" as a song of deep sincerity and even greater urgency. There's a moment later in the film where Diana Ross expresses her belief that this song will usher in a new era of compassion, and as naive as that can sound to 2024 ears, western compassion to an African drought was exactly the objective here. Their charity single tried to model compassion for the world by using some of the most brilliant musical talents of that era as instruments.
The documentary, and particularly Richie's recounting of events, shows that "We Are the World" was as much a logistical triumph as it was an artistic one. Back then, there were only two or three nights per year when the entire music industry gathered in one place. In this case, it was the 1985 American Music Awards. Richie and Kragen had one night when they could get all these huge artists with impossible schedules to commit, all while navigating ego traps like the Michael Jackson/Prince rivalry (Prince was invited to participate but never came); hoping Springsteen could fly out of his last tour stop in snowy Buffalo; reassuring Cyndi Lauper after her boyfriend tried to tell her the song wasn't going to be a hit.
The music video for the single was shot as the song was being recorded, which means Nguyen had access to hours of invaluable footage of music legends bouncing off of one another: Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Billy Joel. And at the head of it was producer Quincy Jones, who’s probably the only person in the industry who could command enough respect to get that room to listen to him, and most importantly, to trust him.
"Check your egos at the door," Jones wrote down on a piece of notebook paper and hung over the door to the studio, and while such a thing would be impossible, it was an ethos that only Jones could project. Which isn't to say that challenges didn't arise. One of the most fun aspects of this documentary is being able to see some of these revered celebrities as people working on a group project. Al Jarreau got wine drunk at 2:00 AM and struggled to deliver his line. Cyndi Lauper's beaded necklaces were interfering with the recording. There was a moment when Stevie Wonder — a musical genius who also seems like he could be a pain in the ass — decided that the song needed some lines sung in Swahili (despite the fact that Swahili isn't spoken in Ethiopia), and the delicate balance that was required to talk Stevie out of it is as intricately thrilling as any TV drama.
Showing the hard work that went into making the song happen reclaims "We Are the World" from its cheesy designation in music history. The intermingling of celebrities is so intoxicating, even as a thirdhand observer, even decades later. Diana Ross asking Daryl Hall for an autograph. Smokey Robinson being the only person who can speak truth to Michael Jackson when Michael goes off on a tangent. Stevie Wonder talking Bob Dylan through his nerves. Kenny Loggins and Steve Perry on the sidelines coaching Huey Lewis through how to come up with a three-part harmony for himself, Cyndi Lauper and Kim Carnes on the fly. It's a documentary that shows professionalism and craft at the highest level and celebrity at its most cloistered.
So many more things are possible today, but you can't replicate the feeling of 35 of the most accomplished and famous musicians of the moment, all in the same recording studio, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, working on a project for the benefit of other people. There's a moment where Bob Geldof (organizer of the "Do They Know It's Christmas?" single and, later, Live Aid) speaks to the assembled stars about the horrifying conditions in Ethiopia, and the once boisterous room falls silent. Rather than depress the mood in the room, Geldof's words gave everybody a shared purpose and helped them focus on the job at hand. It's hard to imagine this kind of moment happening in a remote recording situation, without everyone there in person and breathing the same studio air.
The technology we have today encourages people to make videos in their bathrobes. Back in '85, Quincy Jones had the baton, and you had to come correct. A moment like "We Are the World" can't happen again because it's too easy to take a technological shortcut. As Lionel Richie tells it, it was a nearly impossible confluence of people, circumstance, and a lot of hard work. That near-impossibility is what made that moment so special.
The Greatest Night in Pop is available to stream on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.