Click here if you don’t see subscription options
Joe Hoover, S.J.February 09, 2024
Willie Nelson, from left, Quincy Jones and Bruce Springsteen in a scene from "The Greatest Night in Pop." (Netflix via AP)

Cyndi Lauper almost didn’t come. Waylon Jennings came and left. Prince didn’t show up at all. (But for some reason Dan Ackroyd did?)

Stevie Wonder did a Bob Dylan impersonation in front of Bob Dylan. Diana Ross walked up to Daryl Hall, told him she was his biggest fan and asked for his autograph. Huey Lewis was so nervous before his solo that his legs were shaking. Al Jarreau was in his cups. (Don’t remember who Al Jarreau was? Dubbed the “Acrobat of Scat,” he won seven Grammys in the ’70s and ’80s, and wrote and sang the theme song to the TV show “Moonlighting.”)

Paul Simon looked around at the more than 40 superstars gathered and couldn’t resist: “If a bomb lands on this place, John Denver’s back on top.”

Several performers wore those thin 1980s sportcoats with T-shirts underneath.

Sheila E. walked up to an expressionless Dylan, said “hi,” then turned and walked away in fear and trembling.

If you grew up in the ’80s and ever listened to, basically, the radio, watching Netflix’s new documentary, “The Greatest Night in Pop,” is like eating six bowls of Cap’n Crunch all at once. Telling the behind-the-scenes story of the recording of the charity single “We Are the World” in 1985, the documentary is almost too much—a 96-minute sugar rush of ’80s musical glory. It is thrilling—a total blast.

If you grew up in the ’80s, watching Netflix’s new documentary, “The Greatest Night in Pop,” is like eating six bowls of Cap’n Crunch all at once.

A musical who's who

The story is told primarily through interviews with Lionel Richie, who, along with his manager Bob Kragen and legendary record producer Quincy Jones, made the recording happen. The doc also features interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Sheila E., Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper and several technical artists who worked on the recording.

“We are the World” was inspired by the massive success of “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” the year before. Organized by the Irish-American musician and political activist (and lead singer of The Boomtown Rats) Bob Geldof, “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” was performed by the British pop stars collectively called “Band Aid.” That song raised $28 million for famine relief in Ethiopia and featured artists such as Sting, Bono, Paul Young, George Michael, Phil Collins and Boy George—all of them white.

The singer and actor Harry Belafonte, who was also one of the godfathers of the American civil rights movement, approached Lionel Richie’s manager Ken Kragen, and then Richie himself about doing something similar. Belafonte wanted to do an American version of Band Aid for famine relief. Said Belafonte to Richie, “We have white folks saving Black folks; we don’t have Black folks saving Black folks.”

Richie ended up writing the song with Michael Jackson. They got together at Michael’s house, where at one point Michael’s pet snake Muscles came out of hiding, completely freaking out Lionel.

The recording took place the night of the American Music Awards on Jan. 28, 1985. Most of the artists were already in Los Angeles. Bruce had to fly in from Buffalo, having just finished the last performance of the first leg of his epic “Born in the U.S.A.” tour. Dionne Warwick flew in from Las Vegas because, she said, Quincy Jones told her to be there.

Everyone gathered at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles. One by one the stars filed in. Seeing Ray Charles come into the studio, one observer recalled thinking: “That’s Ray, that’s really him. That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in.” (If you watch the video of the song on YouTube, Ray Charles pretty much takes the whole thing over at the end, turning it into a makeshift call-and-response gospel song. “One more time!” “Let me hear you!”)

Stevie Wonder had the most solo words: 67. Bruce Springsteen came in second at 66. Lionel Richie had only eight. Kim Carnes had two. (Don’t remember who Kim Carnes was? Think “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” and “Bette Davis Eyes.”)

When Wonder wanted to add Swahili lyrics, a minor bit of chaos erupted. Waylon Jennings left. (“Ain’t no good ole boy gonna sing Swahili,” he reportedly said.) Other performers were doubtful about being able to pull it off, and Lionel Richie worried the whole thing would be derailed. Finally, Geldof stepped in and said, “There’s no point in talking to people who are starving. You’re talking to the people who have got the money to give.” (It was also pointed out that Ethiopians do not speak Swahili.)

Michael Jackson’s proposed chorus also got canned when Smokey Robinson told him to let it go.

Has there ever been a night when such a ridiculously talented, famous and fabulous group of artists assembled to work together on one project?

Check your ego

Has there ever been a night, ever, in the entire history of, well, history, when such a ridiculously talented, famous and fabulous group of artists assembled to work together on one project at the same time in the same room? Let alone in a matter of hours?

Lionel Richie starts off the song, passing it along to Stevie Wonder, then to Paul Simon, then to Kenny Rogers, and then eventually we get a pan up of black shoes, white sequined socks, black pants, a lone white sequined glove, a black jacket brocaded in gold: Michael Jackson. We are the world, we are the children… In Michael’s sweet silky high-tenor voice? I mean, forget about it.

It goes on: Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Kenny Loggins, Ray Charles—up to 47 performers all told. (Harry Belafonte was there and he didn’t even have a solo! And neither did Bette Midler!)

Quincy Jones orchestrated the whole recording, having placed a sign over the door to the studio reading “Check your ego at the door.” Jones asked Geldof, who was present for the recording, to speak to the assembled musicians about the purpose of the song. Geldof gave an almost comically grim speech to the singers about how terrible the famine was in Ethiopia. (The United Nations estimated that more than a million people died of starvation in Ethiopia between 1983 and 1985.)

Quincy Jones also acknowledged Harry Belafonte (standing in the back) as the man who started this all. Immediately, Al Jarreau started singing “Day-O!” to Belafonte. And then, in one of the sweetest and most delightful moments of the documentary, we see the entire assembled cast sing “Day-O (The Banana Boat Song).” Stevie Wonder, standing next to Ray Charles, improvised a line: “You’ll be driven home by me and Ray! Daylight come and me wanna go home…”

What is striking and kind of wonderful about the documentary are those things that are archaic to us now.

As a kid, I never caught any reference to faith in “We Are the World.” Listening to it again all these years later, there it is, hiding in plain sight. Tina Turner’s smoky voice, “We are part of…God’s great big family,” and later Willie Nelson’s nasal tone, “As God has shown us, by turning stone to bread…”

The artists operate from a variety of cultural niches. When Kenny Rogers sings, you are suddenly with a gambler on a train bound to nowhere; Huey Lewis jumps in and you’re riding on a skateboard with Marty McFly; Billy Joel lets go and you’re in some smoky nightclub in Long Island singing to a bar full of the depressed and unfulfilled. Bruce starts wailing and it sounds like you’re at a dog track in Freehold, cheering on some scrawny greyhound in the fifth.

Cyndi Lauper’s boyfriend at the time (who was also her manager) told her not to do the recording. He felt “We Are the World” was not a good enough song. Lionel Richie took Cyndi aside and told her how important it was to do, convincing her to join in (and saving Lauper’s boyfriend, to be sure, a future world of hurt.)

Lauper, along with Huey Lewis and Kim Carnes, ended up supplying the emotional climax of the song during their harmony, “When we stand together as one,” with Lauper’s wailing “yeahs!” at the end.

The recording lasted all through the night. When it was over, all the stars left one by one until Diana Ross was the last performer in the studio. She was crying. “I wanted this night to never be over,” she said.

As a kid, I never caught any reference to faith in “We Are the World.” Listening to it again all these years later, there it is, hiding in plain sight.

Joy in a good cause

What is striking and kind of wonderful about the documentary are those things that are archaic to us now. Lionel Richie tried to reach Stevie Wonder before the performance to help write the song but wasn’t able to get him on the phone for three weeks. Today Richie could take care of that in a single text. The producers sent cassette recordings of the music all over the country to the singers to prepare for their songs. The performers in the recording studio waited for their parts to come up—with no one checking a cell phone.

It is de rigueur now to deplore charity records, to smirk at the idea of pop stars singing and swaying in chorus to raise money for “those poor Africans.” It is obligatory to put down “We Are the World” as a sort of syrupy song.

But honestly, does it really matter? “We Are the World” raised more than $80 million for famine relief. If that money helped feed starving people for a period of time, does it really matter that the money came on the back of some synthesizers and lyrics like, “give ‘em your heart, so they know that someone cares”?

Regardless, the documentary is less about the cause and more about the joy, competitiveness and almost sheer insanity of all those brilliant artists pulling off recording one (ultimately quite moving) song on one night together.

I played “We Are the World” for the 23-year-old editors at America a few days ago. I wanted to give them a sense of what it was like to be a pre-teen hearing it on the radio—of recording it off the radio on a tape recorder! I called out the name of each singer before their parts came up. They smiled in bemusement; they were happy for me. I was happy for me that this song is still around. “The Greatest Night in Pop” is a reminder of how awesome it was then—and still is.

‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ is steaming on Netflix

Correction: An earlier version of the article stated Lionel Richie's manager was Bob Kragen. It is Ken Kragen and has been updated in the article.

The latest from america

On this episode of “Inside the Vatican,” Gerry and host Colleen Dulle discuss Gerry’s interview with the cardinal and give an overview of a busy week for the pope.
Inside the VaticanJune 13, 2024
In his general audience, Pope Francis encouraged Catholics to keep reading to Bible, which reveals God’s love. He also directed a message to preachers to keep homilies to no more than eight minutes.
Pope FrancisJune 12, 2024
A Homily for Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, by Father Terrance Klein
Terrance KleinJune 12, 2024
Sister Luisa Derouen has provided spiritual companionship to some 250 trans people, assuring them that they are God’s children.
David Van BiemaJune 12, 2024