There’s something inherently fascinating about famous people meeting each other. It’s obviously a different dynamic than when they meet fans. Even if there is a disparity between their levels of fame, as long as they are aware of each other’s existence, it’s like they’re all part of a club with a secret handshake. And that often means extended pleasantries, offers of professional favours, even genuine curiosity about the talent the other person has that’s prompted them to reach a similar august stature in the public eye.
The Greatest Night in Pop is like eavesdropping on this club – if there were cameras everywhere and everybody were on (mostly) their best behaviour. Bao Nguyen’s documentary, which recently debuted on Netflix, tracks the making of the charity mega single “We Are the World” in 1985. More than that, it uses yet another remarkable trove of previously unseen footage to show us some of the greatest luminaries in the history of popular music rubbing elbows.
The unusual conditions under which the song was recorded are the thing that gets us in the door, before we remember we’ll be seeing behind the scenes footage of everyone from Michael Jackson to Paul Simon to Cyndi Lauper to Bob Dylan sharing the same stage in an LA recording studio. Jackson wrote the song with Lionel Richie, who is the most regularly interviewed subject in The Greatest Night in Pop, with Quincy Jones serving as producer.
The thing is, it all came together quickly, as a direct response to the success of Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid project, which produced the British charity mega single and Christmas perennial “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” in the 1984 holiday season. Eager also to contribute to the cause of ending hunger in Africa, only with American artists instead of British ones, the collaborators all realised they had a best date to gather everyone together: the American Music Awards, to be held on January 25th, just a few short weeks away. Everyone would be in LA for the occasion, then scattered to the winds again just as quickly.
So who in their right mind would plan a recording session after a big awards show, where attendees are usually accustomed to drinking at after parties rather than going right back to work – an awards show that Richie himself was hosting, while also being the evening’s big winner? A recording session where many of the gathered singers were not yet familiar with the song, nor what their own part in it would be? Well, these guys did – and it took all night. You might say it was the greatest night in pop.
A sign hangs at the entrance of the recording studio reading “Check your egos at the door,” and for the most part, they do. It’s fascinating to watch the polite version of haggling and bargaining that occurs here, as only a fraction of the singers can actually have a solo, and some of those solos are comically truncated by the improvisatory process of working out what feels right in the room. (Kim Carnes, for example, finds the only two words she sings alone to be “Where we,” as Richie et al. decide it’s better for Huey Lewis and Lauper, who have just sung, to join her on the rest of the line.) Neither is this to say that everyone played nice. I’m sure Waylon Jennings, who passed more than two decades ago, wouldn’t like to be reminded that he got up and left mid-way through when Stevie Wonder suggested incorporating some African elements into the song, quipping “No good old boy ever sung Swahili.”
This is not a notable documentary in terms of its craft, but with this collection of artists, many of whom are still living, seen as they were 40 years ago, it needn’t be. Nguyen doesn’t make a huge attempt to extract a greater profundity from this evening, since really, what’s one unpaid all-nighter in the life of a millionaire when they were also getting positive headlines for their participation. But the footage is priceless, showcasing the highs of seeing two musicians you might love from very different genres, laughing and embracing, to the not-quite-lows of seeing people start to crack up a bit, or get a little too drunk to perform properly. There aren’t any real lows.
And again it’s fascinating to marvel at the task they set for themselves. It’s a testament to their professionalism that they performed as admirably as they did under these less-than-ideal circumstances, and that they didn’t need weeks of practice or learning the music to turn out a good product. Then there’s the fact that they had to shoot the music video, which would have had its own demands separate from recording the song, at the same time.
The Greatest Night in Pop may really have been, depending on how you define such a thing. But Nugyen’s movie is also a reminder of the height of the monoculture, when we all acknowledged who the greats in music were, and we all had a decent familiarity with the hits of the day because listening to the radio was one of your only options to consume music when you were out on the go. The unique circumstances of making “We Are the World” remind us that subsequent charity mega singles mostly fell flat, and suggest that if someone tried one today, there would be two problems: 1) No one could agree on one charity deserving of the money, weighted down as that choice would be by political baggage, and 2) Would we even agree who should be in that room?
The Greatest Night in Pop is currently streaming on Netflix.