Being of a certain age will surely enhance the pleasure in watching “The Greatest Night in Pop,” a documentary on the making of “We Are the World” nearly 40 years ago, but the film proves such an anecdote-rich environment it’s hardly mandatory. Lionel Richie serves as the de facto tour guide for this trip down memory lane, which fulfills its promise to make a better day (or at least 90-some-odd minutes) for you and me.
For those who don’t remember, the song and video to benefit starving people in Africa was pulled together in 1985, cleverly assembling nearly four dozen reigning musical stars after they appeared at the American Music Awards. As Richie notes, organizers knew they had “one night only to get this right,” with producer Quincy Jones famously posting a sign outside that read, “Check your ego at the door.”
The array of talent was so dazzling that Kenny Loggins, one of several participants interviewed now to share their recollections about that night, says Paul Simon surveyed the room and joked, “If a bomb lands on this place, John Denver’s back on top.”
While the egos did remain mostly in check, the logistics proved a considerable challenge, with complicating factors ranging from Michael Jackson’s rivalry with Prince at the time to Al Jarreau getting slightly drunk and having trouble delivering his part.
Then again, as directed by Bao Nguyen (whose credits include the Bruce Lee documentary “Be Water”), the whole thing is pretty intoxicating, drawing from the ample footage shot that night to provide plenty of fly-on-the-wall moments, augmented by interviews with musicians and the production crew.
There are plenty of amusing details, like Steve Wonder leading Ray Charles to the bathroom, an impromptu sing-along tribute to activist and actor Harry Belafonte, and Diana Ross asking Daryl Hall for his autograph, which opened the floodgates to these performers unleashing their inner fans and flitting around the room collecting signatures.
In addition to Richie and Loggins the artists looking back include Cindi Lauper (who calls the experience “otherworldly”), Huey Lewis, Smokey Robinson, Bruce Springsteen, and Dionne Warwick.
As easy as it is to marinate in this as pure nostalgia, “The Greatest Night in Pop” also provides an uplifting glimpse of these stars uniting in a common cause, while underscoring that whatever their accomplishments they share in appreciating the work of their contemporaries.
Granted, the tradeoff to watching is you’ll likely be humming or singing “We Are the World” for the next several days. Consider that a relatively small price to pay for a front-row seat to this remarkable gathering of musical royalty, and the magic that happened during one long night when, per Jones’ request, they (mostly) left their egos outside.
“The Greatest Night in Pop” premieres January 29 on Netflix.
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