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The Greatest Night in Pop

Year: 2024
Production Co: Dorothy Street Pictures
Studio: Netflix
Director: Bao Nguyen
Cast: Lionel Ritchie, Huey Lewis, Kenny Loggins, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Sheila E, Dionne Warwick

I've developed a strange affinity with We Are the World over the last decade or so. I watch it on YouTube every now and then and try to identify everybody, realising every time I know one or two more of them just from a bit more exposure to culture and pop music history over time.

I've also never forgotten a tidbit from a Making Of special that appeared on TV back when it came out. They couldn't identify some strange noise on the recording before finally realising it was Cyndi Lauper's jewellery tinkling, something that comes up again in this film.

I also think I like the song and the story behind it because as a former Los Angeles resident I lived a few hundred metres down from the studio complex where they recorded it all.

A very storied building, it was once Charlie Chaplin's studio headquarters and it's now the home base of the Henson Company studio and creature shop. My regular bike ride used to take me right past, and you could almost feel the property breathing a century's worth of entertainment history out onto La Brea Avenue.

But there's lots more in it I had no idea about and it was great fun to learn, all of it revealed through interview material with Lionel Ritchie (his face stuffed with what looks like way too much Botox) sitting in the same studio where they recorded it, your erstwhile guide through the night of the title.

It was actually Quincy Jones' brainchild. He tasked Ritchie and Michael Jackson with writing it, and while describing how they were down to the wire because the recording date was set only weeks in advance Ritchie has some great stories of working with Jackson at his house, including a hilarious one where Jackson's pet boa constrictor emerges from a bookshelf and frightens the shit out of him.

They were actually supposed to co-write with Stevie Wonder, but in one of the amusing anachronisms about an age where nobody had a mobile phone or email, they couldn't get hold of him.

And it was only possible because so many recording stars were in LA that night for the VMA awards – Ritchie not only hosted, he won several of them, so he worked the hardest of everyone.

During the after parties, limos secreted the biggest names in the industry to the studio under the cover of night and they filmed and recorded until about eight the next morning – first the whole company for the choruses, then the individual clusters of singers doing the verses in groups.

Original footage from photographers and videographers running around the room, interviews with some of the stars today (although there are some very notable absences like Jones himself) and voiceovers provide a rolling roster of musician trivia.

Al Jarreau kept calling for wine, getting drunker all the time. Bob Dylan felt weird about doing his solos in front of everybody else, so Jones offered to empty the whole room.

Bob Geldof, who was behind the hit Do They Know it's Christmas and the accompanying event Live Aid (all of which was the British inspiration for We Are the World), came and gave everybody a sobering pep talk at the beginning of the night, reminding them why they were there. One of the cameramen had an invoice for his time in his back pocket before some producer indignantly told him he'd been a volunteer.

Country star Waylon Jennings, feeling the whole thing was a mismanaged shambles, walked out. Sheila E, after being sidelined and ignored one too many times, realised she'd only been invited because she was their lifeline to convince her then-boyfriend Prince to take part.

Whether it was because of Prince's infamous rivalry with Michael Jackson or some other reason, he never showed, but Sheila has the good grace and class to show up for the documentary years later with nothing but good things to say about the song and its creators.

Bruce Springsteen had just come off a tour and was exhausted, his voice far from its best, which explains why (something I've always wondered about) he screeches his lines like his balls are being closed in a vice.

The only thing nobody mentions and is still a mystery after all these years (which I read in another review of the the film) is exactly why Dan Aykroyd – who was never a singer – was there.

It also highlights the creative process inherent to plenty of artistic pursuits when they're in process – one that applies to filmmaking as much as music – and how despite things being tightly planned and the thing being written and ready to record, things change for both the worse and better on the day.

In one example, Stevie Wonder insisted he should do a line in Swahili, wasting a decent amount of time until they talked him out of it – partly because someone finally figured out they don't even speak Swahili in Ethiopia, the focal point of famine in Africa at the time.

It was also never planned for Huey Lewis to come in with 'But if we just believe... there's no way we can fall' until the last minute, and despite how nervous he was singing directly after Michael Jackson ('When you're down and out... and there seems no hope at all...'), history proves he nailed it.

As the final credits roll you're actually quite sad to realise how many people from the era we've lost, suddenly reminding you it was 40 years ago. But if there's anything you ever wanted to know about the song, the video and what those who were there thought about it, look no further.

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