Chronicling what should probably be considered the Avengers Assemble of the rock music world, Netflix’s latest musical documentary, The Greatest Night in Pop, lays out everything that went behind the scenes of the 1985 single We Are the World. It is certainly one of the most popular songs in the history of music, mainly because of its universal appeal and the people that are associated with it. You don’t get names like Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Lionel Richie, Quincy Jones, Harry Belafonte, Kenny Rogers, Bob Dylan, and Stevie Wonder working together to create one single piece of art every day. It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and Netflix makes sure that the audience gets to see it that way only.
What Happens In The Documentary?
The Greatest Night in Pop takes us back to one cold winter night in January 1985, where all the shining stars of the musical world gathered together in the A&M Studios, LA, with one single agenda: to create a song through one live session. The reason they were doing it has a lot of significance. The song was for charity, an attempt to help out the African people who had been suffering due to the Ethiopian famine, which had lasted for almost three years. Harry Belafonte was the one who came up with the idea, and an organization called “USA for Africa” took all the responsibility to handle the non-musical side of things. Through a lot of archival footage and interviews by a lot of esteemed music producers and journalists, we get to know about the entire process that made We Are the World a reality. Of course, Lionel Richie himself guides us through it as the primary narrator.
With all these artists collaborating for the first and most certainly the only time together, one of the major risks was the final product turning out to be something underwhelming. Not only would that have been terrible news for the music industry, it would have affected millions of people in Africa whose survival depended on it. But as soon as the recording session kicked off, things just started falling into place. The pressure of delivering something that had to be nothing short of absolutely magical was there, but being the kind of geniuses these people were, they were clearly up for it. So the recording season went exactly like you would expect it to—electrifying with a surge of creativity. Dylan’s forever soulful vocals, Jackson’s infectious energy, Rogers’ beautiful baritone, and Wonder’s signature style—all these gelled really well and managed to become one single piece of fascinating music that would literally change the world.
The artists were working with a midnight deadline, and as the clock was ticking towards the end, tension was rising. But when it finally happened, everyone realized that they had become part of history. Given that we’re talking about it almost four decades later, you can clearly understand the cultural and social impact of We Are the World. It was no surprise that the song took the world by storm, completely fulfilled the purpose of its existence, and eventually went on to become the ninth most popular single ever.
Would I be put in a guillotine if I said parts of The Greatest Night in Pop bored the hell out of me? To be perfectly honest, I only went through those parts without giving in to the urge to fast-forward a lot of it for the sake of work. In the end, I realized that I wouldn’t have missed anything even if I had done that. And I am mostly talking about Lionel Richie here, whose interviews were taken inside the same studio where the original thing happened all those years ago, which is a nice touch. There’s no doubt that Richie is a legend in his own right, but The Greatest Night in Pop does seem like another glorified excuse for him to endlessly talk about something which clearly means a lot to him—as it should. And there’s nothing wrong with reminiscing about past glory, as long as that is not affecting the flow of an otherwise entertaining documentary. I actually have a lot of good things to say about The Greatest Night in Pop, so I wanted to be done with the only negative thing about it.
The thing about Bao Nguyen’s documentary is that it makes a choice between not particularly going deep into the whole thing and giving the audience some really riveting inside stories. Instead, it decides to fanboy over the whole thing and marvel at the fact that something as phenomenal as this actually happened. It’s like we’ve got to pinch ourselves to believe that all these famous names joined hands, putting aside their creative differences and egoes, to make something novel happen. And this approach does benefit The Greatest Night in Pop a lot, as it ends up being a breezy watch mostly. Sure, it’s just a bunch of people talking about one single thing, but if that single thing happens to be as big as We Are the World, you’ve got to listen. And barring Richie going on and on at times, I didn’t really mind listening to all the talking. In fact, I thought it was quite enjoyable.
While it’s true that documentary filmmaking is reaching new heights every day, and that Netflix has a lot to do with that, The Greatest Night in Pop doesn’t particularly break any new ground. It is a musical documentary of the kind that we’ve seen before and will certainly see again, but it does succeed at the familiar storytelling. It is not always necessary to bring something exceptional or original to the table, as long as a story is being told right. We can say that The Greatest Night in Pop has managed to do that. The archival footage, especially the bits we see at the end, where everyone is finally singing We Are the World, something that all of us have listened to so many times since childhood, is bound to make you feel emotional. Maybe that was the whole point of Nguyen’s documentary, which is not perfect by any means but pretty much hits the right notes.