Of course, it happens every now and then that celebrities somehow support a good cause. Whether this is done out of altruism or is purely a PR measure can be debated on a case-by-case basis. As long as something is actually achieved and helped in the end, everyone is helped. That was certainly the case with We Are the World. The song, sung by numerous stars, made it to the top of the charts worldwide in 1985 and is still one of the ten best-selling singles of all time. This enabled more than $60 million to be donated to those in need in Africa. USA for Africa, the name of the group consisting of several dozen singers, was not the first such charity project. In fact, just a few months earlier, Do They Know It’s Christmas? recorded by a British supergroup. So a US counterpart was needed, initiated by Harry Belafonte.
Looking back at a slightly different music event
The Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop looks back at the song and reconstructs its creation from the first idea to the finished recording. Looking back, the project was actually complete madness. How did you bring together some of the most famous music stars of the time? The cast list, which includes people as diverse as Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Tina Turner, Billy Joel and Bob Dylan, reads almost absurdly. The trick: They used the American Music Awards, a very important award ceremony in the USA, to then drag the people who were already there into the studio and record a song together. Although this was practical, it meant enormous time pressure. Not only that the song had to be written by then. There was only this one evening – or more precisely the following night – to get everything in the box.
The chronologically processed documentation reveals that there are many stumbling blocks involved. For this purpose, there are recordings from the studio where the accompanying music video was made. The sight is a little surreal to see all these greats in one place and how they sometimes act in partnership and sometimes compete with each other. After all, not all of them were allowed to sing their own solo. Of course, everyone also wanted to look good in front of so many stars. The Greatest Night in Pop shows – or rather ears – how different these voices are. It’s exciting to be able to watch how, take by take, they try to really form this wild bunch into a unit. Above all, the performance of producer Quincy Jones is emphasized.
Anecdotes from the stars
In addition, some of these heroes and heroines were able to be won over for new interviews. Of course, many of the great people are missing, simply because some have died over the past four decades. Others have withdrawn so much that they no longer want to appear in front of cameras. At least, Lionel Richie, one of the two composers – the other was Michael Jackson himself – is allowed to report on this event. But music icons Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper and Dionne Warwick are also there and tell director Bao Nguyen (The Bruce Lee Story – “Be Water!”) their stories in The Greatest Night in Pop.
What’s nice is that the documentary doesn’t degenerate into pure hero worship, as was feared. Of course they can say what it was like to become part of a story that was bigger than themselves, just the usual. But there are also funny moments, such as when Lauper’s earrings interfere with the recording, Al Jarreau is drunk, Huey Lewis struggles with the passage that was actually intended for Prince or Stevie Wonder threatens to break up the group with a strange linguistic suggestion. Even those who can’t do anything with songs and find such star line-ups silly can still have fun. For an older audience, The Greatest Night in Pop, which premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, is a nostalgic celebration that becomes a contemporary portrait of the 80s.
The Greatest Night in Pop goes behind the scenes when the charity song “We Are the World” was recorded. This is very exciting even for people who don’t know much about it. Numerous anecdotes are shared when some of the stars of the time remember. There is also a lot to hear from absolute music legends.