‘The Greatest Night In Pop,’ About The Making Of ‘We Are The World,’ Is Incredible

So I’m going to start this off with an uncomfortable story about something I did and the reaction from The Greatest Night in Pop‘s director, Bao Nguyen. Back in 2015, he directed a documentary about Saturday Night Live called Live From New York! that opened the Tribeca Film Festival that year. It was certainly well made, but any one film about the entire history of SNL is going to probably be stories fans of the show had heard before – and especially for me, who had been covering the show on a weekly basis at the time since 2010. The fact I covered the show meant I was expected to write a review of the documentary, which I did in a, I realize now, clumsy way. Then to make matters worse, I was asked if I wanted to talk to Nguyen and, not really thinking it through, I said yes, because I do enjoy talking about SNL, assuming there’s no way he read that review. (To this day I kind of assume no one reads anything I write and I’m always shocked when I find out the opposite.) So we got on the phone and, yes, he certainly had read it and questioned me why I even wanted to talk to him and I didn’t have a great answer. I’m still pretty embarrassed about this to this day. (We did speak again for his wonderful film Be Water and, I think, buried the hatchet a bit.)

I bring this all this for a reason. Because while watching Nguyen’s incredible documentary about the making of “We Are the World,” The Greatest Night in Pop, I kept thinking about Live From New York! and what I was trying to articulate. Both films concentrate on a piece of extremely famous popular culture history involving an endless list of extremely famous people. But the difference here is it’s about one night, versus almost 50 years, which allows time for the very entertaining nitty gritty asides. And most people haven’t heard these stories. I don’t want to get too much into Nguyen’s head, but he’s an obvious fan of pop culture and wants to tell a definitive story about part of that. And with The Greatest Night in Pop (which premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival) he very much succeeds. This was the movie he was always supposed to make. I loved every single second.

Do I need to explain “We Are the World”? I don’t think so? But I will briefly just in case. After the across-the-pond success of Band Aid’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas?,” American recording artists decided to make their own song for famine relief. The song was a huge success and, in 1985, was impossible to avoid. Even to this day, it’s kind of hard to avoid while flipping through radio stations. (Which, when we rent a car without Sirius XM, we still do.) This also involved bringing dozens of the most famous recording artists in the world together for a marathon, overnight session to record the song. And each famous recording artist brought their egos. Sure, there was a sign at the door telling them to check them there, but that did not happen.

Nguyen assembled a really impressive lineup of current-day talking heads from the original recording – Quincy Jones, Lionel Ritchie, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, Sheila E, and even Bruce Springsteen – who all have pretty interesting things to say today. Huey Lewis still has a look on his face that says, “I can’t believe I was even invited.” And we learn his solo in the song was originally earmarked for Prince, who never showed up. We see in the doc Quincy Jones literally approaching Lewis, “Sing this for me,” he does, then Jones saying something along the lines of, “Okay you’re in.” Springsteen, very diplomatically, makes it pretty clear he’s not a huge fan of the song itself, but also that it’s more of a tool to deliver what they needed to do. And also the reason he sounds extra gravel-y on the song is because he had just finished the first leg of the Born in the USA tour the night before and his voice was almost shot. Then there’s Sheila E who feels she was only invited as a way to get Prince to show up … and it seems pretty clear she’s right.

Then there’s Stevie Wonder. What a treat. Quincy Jones warns us early on that Stevie Wonder and Cyndi Lauper were “troublemakers.” And not in an endearing. fun way. Cyndi at the last minute almost bailed because “her boyfriend didn’t like the song.” Then Stevie Wonder, out of nowhere halfway through the recording session, decides part of the song should be sung in Swahili. Everyone else’s face in the room has the, “What on Earth?” look. Finally, Waylon Jennings gets pissed off and leaves and doesn’t come back. Then, finally, someone tells Stevie Wonder that Ethiopians don’t speak Swahili. Oh, there’s more Stevie! Bob Dylan is kind of whispering his part and no one could quite relay to him what he’s supposed to do. Finally, Stevie Wonder does Dylan’s part for him in a perfect Bob Dylan impression and says, “Do it like that.” If you ever wonder why Dylan, who didn’t really use that “Dylan voice” as much in the 1980s, sounds like 1960’s Dylan on the song … well he was just copying Stevie’s instructions. Again, everything about this movie is incredible. Every single story is like that. And it was all recorded so we get to actually see it.

Again, this is the movie Nguyen was kind of born to make. I speak from some experience that it’s really difficult to (a) find a piece of pop culture history people still care about, (b) involves enough people who audiences still care about, (c) hasn’t been covered to death and (d) the people involved will actually talk about it. Nguyen just may have found the last one … and he nails it.

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