Looking back on the moment in time that The Greatest Night in Pop captures is a dizzying thing. Even in 1985, the recording of the single “We Are The World” was inexplicable. Out of nowhere, some of the biggest recording artists in contemporary American music were joined in a chorus for charity. Thinking back on the music video, the collection of famous faces seems like a fever dream more than a memory: Stevie Wonder, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Willie Nelson, Bette Midler, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, for some reason Dan Aykroyd, and many, many more.
They’d come together to create a fundraising single to fight famine in Africa, and they achieved awe-inspiring success in collaboration and philanthropy. But looking back, it feels even more impossible to imagine something so sincere and star-stuffed coming together at all.
The documentary The Greatest Night In Pop is fueled by this sense of awe. Director Bao Nguyen offers interviews from a long list of the single’s contributors alongside behind-the-scenes footage that takes us into the recording session that was as stressful as it was surreal. The result is a documentary that is undeniably enchanting — even if willfully naive.
Lionel Richie is The Greatest Night in Pop’s MVP.
Lionel Richie, who serves as a talking head as well as a producer here, returns to the recording studio where they all convened on January 25, 1985. With the help of colleagues like Kenny Loggins, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Smokey Robinson, Sheila E., and Dionne Warwick, he constructs the incredible story of how the song came together.
Each of the interview subjects brings interesting perspectives and engaging anecdotes, many of them painting a picture of music producer Quincy Jones — who does not participate in the doc — as brilliant, patient, and inspiringly ambitious. But as Richie was involved with the single early on, co-writing it with Michael Jackson, he shoulders much of the story.
Far from having a Behind the Music vibe, The Greatest Night in Pop is not interested in the scandals and shocks that would come later in some of these musicians’ careers. There will be no dramatic music stings as someone says something shady. No syrupy narrator will thread in foreboding or stoke drama from a vague comment. Nguyen keeps the story relatively focused and easy to watch by keeping to the topic at hand, with little to no interest in the future. This gives Richie the space to play storyteller comfortably; he regales us with details about what an eccentric Jackson was, busting out stories about how the King of Pop’s animal menagerie became an unwelcome distraction during the writing phase. Aside from being a dynamic storyteller, Richie also proves a solid mimic. His impression of Jackson is as good as that of the large python who intruded on a brainstorming session.
The Greatest Night in Pop gives affable access.
Richie is our charismatic tour guide through titular historical event, offering winsome stories and an attitude that we’re being allowed beyond the velvet rope. In this space far from fans and paparazzi, the stars are not just glamorous — they’re geeking out to meet their idols. Charming anecdotes and matching archival photographs are shared of artists exchanging their sheet music to be autographed like a high school yearbook. Several interviewees recall how in awe they were to be in the same room as the living legends on this track.
Here, Huey Lewis proves a standout, acknowledging that he was a relatively new kid on the block, drop-jawed to be in the same session as Billy Joel, Smokey Robinson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings. His arc within the story is among the most satisfying, both sweet and grateful. Elsewhere, Springsteen has a great line trying to sum up Bob Dylan, whose folk stylings struggled in this group setting. Where technicians from that night give structure to how everything came together, talent like Dionne Warwick provides colorful commentary that is gleeful fun, as if told in a conspiratorial cackle over cocktails.
In general, these interviews paint The Greatest Night in Pop to be a magical moment where a bunch of big stars overcame their egos for the betterment of the world — in a time when that didn’t earn derision. The film’s joyful tone invites us to join in on the lovefest, though there is a frisson of drama that threatens to overshadow everything else.
Prince stands out by staying out of The Greatest Night in Pop.
The closest the film gets to drama is Prince. Though the iconic artist chose not to participate in the event, the will-he-won’t-he of it all becomes an intriguing theme. Specifically, the drama tangles around Sheila E., Prince’s then-girlfriend and musical colleague as well as the Queen of Percussion. She was really excited to be involved with “We Are the World.” However, in her interview, she recalls how the producers on the night of the recording repeatedly pushed her to call Prince and invite him to come. “The Glamorous Life” singer began to feel that she wasn’t invited on her own merit, but only because of her famous lover. All these years later, that feeling of rejection clearly still stings as she hangs her head in her interview.
To Nguyen’s credit, the documentarian does not dismiss Sheila E.’s experience, but he doesn’t press the other producers and musicians on this point either. And so, Sheila E. is left to dangle on a sullen note. Though this arc does give the film a low moment, it doesn’t so much detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. However, her story does push us to wonder about the other angles that are not explored — troublesome behavior that was laughed off or whispers that won’t be spoken of.
This is not the kind of documentary that digs particularly deep, looking for the dark corners of the shiny pop story. As its title suggests, The Greatest Night in Pop is a celebration, full of nostalgia for a supposedly simpler time when star power might sweetly combat the evils of the world. The final act notes cheerily how this single inspired benefit concerts like Farm Aid and Live Aid. So, this is propaganda for the power of pop music — popaganda, if you will. And sure, what the artists accomplished that night should be lauded, as they donated their time and talent to the greater good. On reflection, there’s something uneasy in only calling upon participants to proclaim the night’s greatness. But it’s something that won’t be explored in this documentary.
In the end, The Greatest Night In Pop is a good documentary for Netflix viewing. Fun and fluffy with famous faces, brisk pacing, and plenty of playful tales, it’s something you could put on casually while folding laundry. And it is very satisfying on that front.
The Greatest Night in Pop was reviewed out of the 2024 Sundance Film Festival; the documentary debuts is now streaming on Netflix.