How a Stressed-Out Lionel Richie, a Surly Bob Dylan, a Nervous Huey Lewis, and an Enormous Python Made the Greatest Charity Hit of the '80s


Late at night, on January 28, 1985, more than 40 of the country’s biggest music stars covertly gathered inside A&M Studios in Los Angeles to sing a song for charity. Initiated by Harry Belafonte and producer Ken Kragen, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, and orchestrated by Quincy Jones, “We Are the World” was a global phenomenon, sold over seven million records, and generated around $60 million in relief funds to support Africans affected by famine. But it was also a logistical nightmare, a mish-mash of competing egos, and a frantic race against the clock. Almost 40 years later, its existence still feels like the biggest coup in music history.

At least, that’s how director Bao Nguyen (Be Water) framed it while putting together The Greatest Night in Pop, an entertaining and compelling new Netflix documentary, which chronicles the song’s improbable creation and recording. After combing through previously unseen archival film and audio tapes (some of which were found nearly destroyed in the trunk of a car) and interviewing the artists, producers, sound engineers, and cameramen on hand that night, “I immediately imagined it like a heist film,” Nguyen says on a recent call. Richie, Nguyen suggested, was the Danny Ocean, “calling up and assembling his ragtag team” of artists, while those behind the glass resembled “the geeky technicians hacking the computer systems.”

“The experience is really about immersing the audience and the viewer into that night—into the sense of tension, the sense of nervousness, the sense of vulnerability,” Nguyen says.

Mostly, though, The Greatest Night in Pop is a big hangout session inside an insanely talented room of singers and musicians. Without publicists or agents hovering around them, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, and Willie Nelson, among so many others, rub shoulders, crack jokes, and test out harmonies. In the delirious aftermath of the American Music Awards earlier that evening, it’s the most unguarded footage you’ve likely ever seen from these dressed-up and down superstars, especially on the precipice of recording a major anthemic earworm. “When I first started, ‘We Are the World’ was just an iconic song to me,” Nguyen says. “To understand the story behind it has given it much more purpose.”

Unsurprisingly, The Greatest Night in Pop has plenty of moments to dissect and interactions to savor. Below are our favorite observations (with added context from Nguyen) about the making of a perfectly ‘80s concoction that likely won’t ever happen again.

The American Music Awards put the wheels in motion

Even with Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder on board to write and sing “We Are the World" and make use of their impressive Rolodexes, corralling 46 major singers into one location seemed like a herculean task. Luckily, the AMAs—which Richie was hosting— meant a bevy of major artists would be in the same place on the same night. It wasn’t long before Larry Klein, the show’s producer, began making calls to that night’s guests, setting up studio space for Quincy Jones and providing an easier commute for everyone in attendance and performing at the awards show.

Michael Jackson’s pet snake nearly derailed the writing process

Imagine going to Michael Jackson’s home (pre-Neverland Ranch) with the intention of writing an iconic anthem. Then imagine you hear a hissing noise behind you while trying to concentrate. Then imagine seeing the source of that noise—a big python—slithering in front of you. Such was Lionel Richie’s experience collaborating on the song with MJ, who Richie impersonates in an accurately dainty voice throughout the doc. Somehow, with a chimpanzee and other critters running around, the pair hashed out enough music and lyrics to make a demo. “As Lionel said, he was very frightened by the moment,” Nguyen laughs.

Bob Geldof got every singer into the right mindset

A month before “We Are the World” was recorded, singer-songwriter and activist Bob Geldof initiated the idea of a charity supergroup. Band Aid, featuring an all-star lineup of British musicians, helped raise money for Ethiopia with the yuletide banger “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” Not long after, Geldof was instrumental in coordinating a similar effort with USA for Africa, and helped set the tone inside the studio for a long night ahead. In front of the excited, talkative vocalists, he brings down the mood, explaining the reality of the famine and the purpose of what they’re attempting to achieve that night. “The price of life is the price of seven inches of plastic with a hole in it,” he tells everyone, before handing the group over to Quincy Jones.

“He had a level of authority to kind of motivate the room,” Nguyen says. “Like with the first day of school, someone just slamming the door, ringing the bell, it just shocks people into the purpose of why they're there.”

Waylon Jennings walked out of the studio halfway through recording

In the midst of debating the finer points of the chorus, Stevie Wonder suggests that because this is a song about Africa, part of “We Are the World” should be sung in Swahili. Considering nobody in Ethiopia—the recipient of USA for Africa’s funds—spoke Swahili, the idea didn’t make a ton of sense. The song might have been about Africa, but it was meant to target pockets from the rest of the world. Still, one whiff of this suggestion was enough for Jennings, a Southern country legend, to exit stage right. “Ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung in Swahili,” cameraman Ken Woo recalls him muttering as he walked off the risers.

The moment might not have been included in the documentary if Nguyen hadn’t found that exact piece of footage in the last moments of the edit. “We were just trying to find wide shots and all of a sudden we see Waylon walking down slowly from the top of the risers and leaving the room,” Ngyen says. “What I've heard from other people is he just felt very uncomfortable… I mean, nowadays I think it would be the right choice.”

Paul Simon didn’t care for John Denver

Want to know the room’s collective opinion about John Denver in 1985? Just listen to Paul Simon cracking wise about him to a bunch of artists. “If a bomb drops on this place, John Denver is back on top,” many recalled him saying during a break in recording.

“When that John Denver line came on [at the Sundance premiere], that was like one of the biggest applause and laugh lines of the entire screening,” Nguyen says.

Bob Dylan looked completely lost, but redeemed himself

Arguably one of the best visual gags in the documentary is the repeated, slow zoom-ins of an unenthusiastic Bob Dylan, silently—and barely—mouthing the words of “We Are the World,” as his other contemporaries belt out the chorus. “Dylan was a very different type of musician, singer, and songwriter than everyone else in that room,” Nguyen says. “So surely he felt a little out of place.” Out of place, indeed. But near the end of the recording, as all the soloists get their chance to flex, Dylan finds redemption. With the help of Richie and Wonder, Dylan ultimately figures out how to contribute to the song, moaning out a memorable, signature-sounding moment halfway through the track.

“When we get to his solo, his ad-lib recording, he still doesn't know what his role is,” Nguyen says. “And then Lionel and Stevie help him find the right path into the song—it's a small arc, but I think it's a really poignant arc. When you see someone that's in need of help, [they’re like] ‘How can we be brothers and sisters to them?’”

Sheila E. felt like a pawn to attract Prince to the studio

Though Sheila E. was happy to take part in the song’s recording, the singer and drummer felt a bit slighted that producers hadn’t asked her to be a soloist. Those feelings were exacerbated when she kept being asked if Prince, whom she had recently started collaborating with, would also be joining the session. (He never did, likely on account of his rivalry with Jackson.) It’s one of the documentary’s more candid moments, something she had never admitted to on camera before. “It was a big surprise to me,” Nguyen says. “You could hear an audible gasp in the room from the crew over how heartbreaking it was and also how vulnerable she was to tell that story.”

Huey Lewis became the song’s nervous hero

The consequence of Prince skipping out on the tribute was a shaky Huey Lewis having to step up in his place. What’s great about the documentary is the way it shows the vocal missteps and tenuous buildup to Lewis’s big moment, when the rocker learned to dip into a lower octave to let Cyndi Lauper soar above him. As Nguyen notes, there’s a TikTok of Michael Jackson giving Lewis a side eye whenever Lewis begins working out his verses and harmonies. “I can't imagine a more hellish scenario,” Nguyen says. “But then he delivers, right? He has such a unique voice, and I think he is one of the heroes of the song and of the film.”

Lionel Richie had a wild, sleepless 24 hours

Outside of hosting duties, Richie sang a couple numbers for the AMA telecast and eventually won six awards that night. But he funneled most of his attention into A&M Studios, where he helped greet his peers and prepared the song’s opening notes. As a producer and taking head in the documentary, he recalls the anxiety and adrenaline of embarking upon this star-studded marathon, putting out fires and keeping level-headed knowing they only had one night to pull this off. “I've seen Lionel like three times in concert in the last year, and he still has this enormous amount of energy,” Nguyen says. “It’s what made Lionel Lionel.”

Cyndi Lauper’s jewelry had to go

Lauper nearly backed out of participating when her partner at the time heard the song might not be a hit. Thankfully, after Richie convinced her she’d be making a big mistake, the extravagant pop-star with bright, sun-dyed hair showed up and sang her heart out. The only problem? In the midst of her soloing, Quincy Jones realized that her microphone was picking up errant noise from her dozens of necklaces and bracelets. “I just found it hilarious,” Nguyen says. “I’m sure everyone was looking around like, ‘What is that?’”

Diana Ross wasn’t such a diva

Surprisingly, Diana Ross and Kenny Rogers shared the same fashion sense that night, wearing their off-white “USA for Africa” sweatshirts inside the studio. It’s a surprising choice considering the music video was being recorded simultaneously. More shocking? The Greatest Night in Pop highlights the moment Ross initiates an entire autograph session by approaching Darryl Hall with a pen. “She's such a giant icon,” Nguyen says. “For her to start asking the other artists in the room for an autograph, that really set the tone of how much admiration and awe everyone had for each other.” Nguyen also shares an even more touching and humanizing anecdote near the end of the doc, when someone observed her crying in the studio, long after others had left.

“I don’t want this to be over,” she was heard telling crew members. It would have been hard to feel any other way.

Quincy Jones checked everyone’s egos and led them to the finish line

There are a lot of hands responsible for making “We Are the World,” but Quincy Jones might have had the strongest grip on it. As was typically the case with him, the legendary producer played multiple roles in the buildup and execution of the recording. He recruited artists, composed arrangements, and, maybe most importantly, put together a tight schedule before everyone’s arrival. He also anticipated the worst. With so many celebrities in one place, he knew it would be easy to lose the crowd over squabbles and slights, so Jones taped up a reminder outside the studio: “Check your egos at the door.”

Unlike some of his looser creative sessions, that night, he was all business into the early hours, which spooked Richie and Wonder as they goofed off between takes. “He really cracked the whip when necessary in that recording studio,” Nguyen says. “If this is the first day of kindergarten, he was the principal.” Though he didn’t end up leaving the studio until about 8 a.m., Jones successfully turned dozens of eccentric and unique voices into a coherent unified sound. “At the end of the story, the egos sort of leave the room,” Nguyen says. “All that's left is the sense of achievement and exhaustion amongst the family.”

Originally Appeared on GQ