Judging just anecdotally from people I know personally, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve seen The Greatest Night in Pop, Bao Nguyen’s new documentary about the making of “We are the World” that is streaming on Netflix as you read this. (If you haven’t seen it, well, you should.) There are so many arcs and twists and turns, it’s the kind of film that can create weeks of conversation. There’s Stevie Wonder deciding the song should be sung in Swahili, causing Waylon Jennings to leave and not come back. There’s Stevie Wonder being told Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili. There’s Stevie Wonder having to teach Bob Dylan how to sing his part. There’s Sheila E. being used in an effort to try and get Prince to show up. There’s Huey Lewis being asked at the last minute to sing Prince’s part. And why was Dan Aykroyd there? Honestly, I could keep going, but there’s just too much.
“We are the World,” was a response to Band Aid’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas” in an effort to raise money to fight the extreme famine in Ethiopia that was going on at the time. It was recorded in early 1985, overnight right after the American Music Awards (AMAs). So the team in charge — led by Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie, and Michael Jackson — had exactly one night to teach everyone their parts and get this recorded. In retrospect, it’s kind of remarkable this was pulled off. But, again, there are so many stories along the way. Director Bao Nguyen compares this story to a heist movie and, actually, yes, that makes a lot of sense. Ahead, we dig into all these stories with Nguyen.
Almost everyone I personally know has seen this. That doesn’t happen often.
I mean, to be honest, I had no idea it would get as big as it is. I also want to give props to Allison and Nicole and the whole Netflix team because I think it was a concerted effort on everyone’s part. I was two years old when this song came out. It was a song that was playing in my household because my parents were refugees from Vietnam. They spoke little English, but they had Lionel Richie’s records, they had Kenny Rogers’s records and they had the “We Are the World” record. And so I remember hearing the song when I was younger, but as a two-year-old, I couldn’t comprehend how big the song was at that moment. And I think after just this past week, of all these really heartfelt messages and everyone sort of… It’s been crazy, as you said.
And so now I really know the resonance of the song. And I knew a little bit and increasingly more as I was making the film, but to know that it’s such a moment in the 1980s that now still resonates, it makes me speechless in many ways. We knew that we wanted to make a film that would uplift people, that would bring smiles to people’s faces, that would make people laugh…
Oh, I laughed a lot.
The last time we talked was the pandemic, and that’s when we kind of conceived of the idea, actually, right around that time, fall of 2020.
I speak from experience trying to write pieces about popular culture: finding events that have not been covered to death, that people are willing to speak about it still, and audiences remember the song or the show or the movie or whatever, those are getting really hard to find. And I think this is just the perfect storm of all those things.
Yeah. I read your piece that you wrote, too, by the way. I do read your pieces. I know you said you’re surprised that when I read them…
Yes, I am.
I mean, you do write really long and thoughtful pieces, so I appreciate that. And even with the SNL thing, when we first talked about it, and you mentioned it in the new article. We’re making things that are different things to different people. So I’m always curious what people take away from it and I hope that people understand my perspective. And just as you were saying, this song, it means so much to people. And I’m surprised and not surprised that reading some of the messages I get that people love the song, but they didn’t know how hard it was to pull off. And I think that was one of the reasons I decided to do this project is because if it was just a really easy song to make, then there’s no real story there, right? Obviously, there’s great footage. But, for me, I was like, how do I make this into a compelling film? And when I read the story, I was like, oh, this is a heist film. This is like a countdown cliffhanger story.
I was very familiar with the video and I just always assumed everyone knew their parts and they showed up one day and did the video. I had no idea it was overnight after the American Music Awards.
Stevie Wonder thought they should sing the song at least partially in Swahili. And then you cut to everyone looking like, “Oh boy.”
Yeah, I love Springsteen’s half smile as we tilt it onto Stevie’s face. It’s one of my favorite shots.
Quincy Jones had called Stevie Wonder and Cyndi Lauper “troublemakers.”
I mean, the troublemaker line, we also cut to Al Jarreau’s photograph and Stevie’s photograph. So again, with the elements of a heist film, you really want to, in the planning stages, set up everything that can possibly go wrong and then, during the execution, have it go wrong. And so it’s all very intentional.
I laughed so hard when it cuts to current day Lionel Richie saying during the Swahili incident Waylon Jennings left and did not come back. I think because I assumed they’d smooth it over. Nope, that was that.
And I think Waylon should be given some props because to know, to have the foresight to be like, “I should not be singing Swahili,” and walking out of that room, I think some viewers take it in different ways. But I always took it as like, “Okay, I have no real reason to be singing Swahili, so I’m going to get out of this room.”
I took it as more, he doesn’t have a solo, his buddy Willie Nelson does have a solo and there’s an ego check, and this is taking a long time and he had had enough.
Yeah, I mean, I can’t speak for Waylon, but I think you’re getting a group of people to sing a song not written for you in the middle of the night after an awards show. I can imagine people would just want to kind of go to sleep.
The part I think I’ve thought about every day since I first watched this movie is Bob Dylan just looking a little bit lost. He has no idea how to sing his part and then just asks Stevie Wonder to do it for him. And then Stevie singing in his voice, showing him how to do it.
And I think both Bob and Stevie have a great arc in their storyline. When you enter, when we first introduce Bob Dylan, it’s a bit of discomfort, a bit of humor. Not laughing at him, but just the whole situation in general, and then he comes up. And I’ve seen the film with many audiences in just the past couple of weeks, and everyone claps at that part where he finishes his line, right? He says, “That wasn’t any good,” and then they all start clapping. And so I really love Bob’s role in the film, along with Stevie, too. Again, it kind of just shows the vulnerability. I mean, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan? These are icons of icons. And for them to be nervous and then help each other is a really, I think, beautiful message of the film.
When you’re making a film that does have humor in it, when the first joke comes on, you really hope it lands. The one joke that, I mean, I knew that was going to kill, but my producer, who’s British, was like – I mean, I’m going to call her out a bit here – she was like, “Who’s John Denver?” So that John Denver line obviously is one of the hugest laugh lines in the film. And if I’m ever in a theater with my producer, I always kind of glance at her. It’s like, good thing we kept that line in! But it’s really interesting, the different parts where people laugh. Obviously, the snake story is hilarious and Lionel’s reaction to that. And the John Denver line, depending on the audience. Sundance people laugh. A Utah crowd really loves their John Denver jokes.
The question I’ve gotten the most is, “Why was Dan Aykroyd there?” My guess is, “Who wouldn’t want Dan Aykroyd around?” And also, not everyone in that room had had a number one album. Dan Aykroyd had had a number one album with the Blues Brothers.
I mean, to be honest, we had a cut where we kind of got into the Dan Aykroyd of it all a bit longer. And it kind of messed up the flow of the film. And you just have to decide what, at the end of the day, what is going to propel your story forward. Just spending a couple minutes explaining why Dan Aykroyd was there, I wanted to kind of leave that open because people, they’re trying to figure out why. And you answered it perfectly. I mean, Blues Brothers had come out. He was huge on SNL. And if you’re going to have a song with the greatest stars of that time, why not have the star of Blues Brothers?
You have so many arcs in this movie, so Sheila E., it’s interesting and it’s heartbreaking. But it also makes a lot of sense — it’s a bunch of famous people trying to negotiate people coming. Of course, they would have her there to try to get Prince there. But you can tell how much it still hurts her feelings.
When we were making the film, we wanted to make something very joyous, but at the same time, honest. And when I interviewed Sheila E., we had spoken before the interview, she hadn’t told me the story yet. And when she told me when we were rolling, everyone on the crew, the room was just completely silent because it was just such a vulnerable thing for her to say and something that was deeply heartbreaking to hear, for sure. And she even says that this is the first time she’s ever said it on camera. And I knew we had to have that in the film just because, as a documentary filmmaker, it’s hard to make something that’s following a certain fact or truth all the time. So I’m always about creating something that feels honest to the story or that is honest to the story. And definitely, Sheila E.’s impression of the night and impression of how they treated her was apparent from this story.
I was, frankly, fearful that there were a lot of parties involved that looked bad because of this and maybe they would have a say. But at the end of the day, especially Lionel, who was a producer on the film, he had total trust in us as filmmakers and he had no comments on this scene. And that was something that, when we showed him a cut, him not having any… I mean, he really didn’t have any notes in the film at all. So he really trusted us. And I think that made this story so much more important to include because if he wasn’t going to deny it, it’s obviously true.
For you to get current Springsteen to participate, that’s quite a get. I’ve never heard him talk about this song before.
I know. And I think the way that he describes it is so matter of fact and so much of how The Boss would talk about this song. He gave very straightforward answers when he heard this song and the chorus, “Yeah, it’s a broad song.”
Yeah, you can tell what he thinks of the song. He called it “a tool.”
He’s generous and careful with his words.
Yes, but you know what he thinks.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so I was like, okay, there’s someone who’s not totally over the moon about the aesthetics of the song. And he says it in the film at the end too, like, “You can judge the song aesthetically, but at the end of the day, it was a tool, and as a tool, it did its job.” And so I love having his perspective on it. And it was a bit of life imitating art because at first, trying to get Springsteen to talk about “We Are the World” was difficult…
Oh, I bet.
I mean, once Lionel called Bruce up, that helped it out. And again, I think he loved more being part of the experience. I can’t speak for him, but I’m just saying from what I gathered from talking, that he definitely… that night was really memorable for him. And so that’s what we kind of focused on when we talked to him. And you could kind of see his opinion of the song through his words.
And then you have the Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper part of the song. Huey being asked to replace Prince at the last second, and Cyndi’s boyfriend saying she shouldn’t do the song because he didn’t like it. Current day Huey Lewis still looks like he’s in awe he was there.
I mean, Huey’s the nicest person in the world. And again, when he walked into the studio, he hadn’t been in that studio for almost 40 years. And the memories just sort of rushed back to him. And he wanted to tell me all the stories before we started rolling. And I was just like, “Huey, we have to get this on camera, so don’t be too effusive yet.” I think his arc is amazing as well, because he sort of is the wild card that gets thrown into the deck and he still really kills his line. And there’s a meme going around of Michael Jackson giving the trio of Cyndi, Kim Carnes and Huey a side-eye – because Michael Jackson is obviously amazing on his part. But for most audiences who go and spread the meme, they don’t know that Huey had to fill in for Prince and it was a last-minute thing. And then he has to sing a three-part harmony with Kim Carnes and Cyndi Lauper in front of all these great singers. And so I hope people, after watching the film, who were sharing the meme have a bit more empathy for Huey.
The film has a part where there’s a debate between inviting Madonna or Cyndi Lauper? Could they not invite both? Or did they just have one spot for the current lady pop star of the time?
You hit the nail on the head. There was a fight about whether to get Cyndi or Madonna. And as you can tell with the song itself, everyone sort of represents a generation or a certain style. And then I think having someone like Cyndi and Madonna kind of adjacent to each other on the song might not have worked as well.
Obviously, Madonna became Madonna. I believe Like a Virgin just came out a couple of months before. But Cyndi Lauper, that’s the line everyone remembers. She has one of most famous singing voices in that song.
I mean, I sing that song in karaoke and I’m always wondering who’s going to sing the Cyndi part because it is a hard part, but it is one of my favorite parts of the song.
What was the hardest decision to cut something out?
I think it was more like tightening things up a bit, just so we can have their propulsion of the film. I mean, now that I get asked the Dan Aykroyd question so much, it’s like we should have just kept that long explanation of Dan Aykroyd and why he was there in the film. But I think films shouldn’t be definitive records of anything. They’re just kind of exist in their 90 or two-hour time capsule. Or, maybe, the mystery of Dan Aykroyd should live on for another generation. That’s my cop-out answer.
I would argue this is the definitive record of “We Are the World.”
All right, well, appreciate you saying that.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.