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Netflix’s The Greatest Night in Pop gets intimate with an ’80s hit

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This initial report on The Greatest Night in Pop comes from our team following the premieres at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. We’ll update this piece when there’s more information about the movie’s release.

Logline

On Jan. 28, 1985, more than 40 of the United States’ most famous musicians, from Michael Jackson and Diana Ross to Paul Simon and Billy Joel, gathered in secret to record a charity song. “We Are the World” was intended as a fundraiser for famine relief in Africa. The Greatest Night in Pop, a documentary coming to Netflix soon, is about how that song got recorded in just one night.

Longerline

“We Are the World” is one of the bestselling, most popular singles of all time, featuring perhaps the most star-studded lineup to ever record together. Bao Nguyen’s film runs through the making of the song, from the initial idea to the writing to getting talent on board to the recording itself.

Nguyen presents all of this through archival footage from when the recording session was initially filmed, as well as talking-head interviews with some of the musicians involved, including Lionel Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen, and Kenny Loggins.

What’s The Greatest Night in Pop trying to do?

Besides just documenting one of the most important moments in 20th-century pop culture, The Greatest Night in Pop also tries to communicate the sheer star power that came together in A&M Studios on that night in 1985. It was a who’s who of the most famous musicians on the planet, which meant that there was both a clashing of egos and an easiness that came from shared levels of fame: These superstars were in the only room in the world where most of the people around them truly understood what life was like at that level of celebrity.

Does The Greatest Night in Pop live up to its premise?

The Greatest Night in Pop is after a more relaxed and celebratory version of the harried energy that director D.A. Pennebaker captured in Original Cast Album: Company, his filming of that album’s all-night recording session. Mostly, Nguyen gets it there. His doc is airy and fun, and while it narrativizes the night well, thanks in large part to Richie’s fantastic narration, it mostly has the good sense to get out of the way of the personalities that were actually in the room. This approach holds it back from being a truly great documentary: It rarely adds much context to the footage we’re seeing, beyond the backstory, and it pointedly avoids any controversy, or any criticism of even the most difficult celebrity participants. But the footage-forward approach does make the whole thing tremendously fun to watch.

Seeing Bob Dylan look uncomfortable in a sea of famous faces, Stevie Wonder joking around with Ray Charles, or Huey Lewis nervously working out a harmony is as close to unguarded as most of these stars have ever been on film. It’s a fascinating document. And the way every second of that footage is still captivating nearly 40 years later is a testament to the raw, all-encompassing, absolutely magnetic star power that everyone in that room has.

The whole group that recorded “We Are the World” in the A&M Studio in the documentary The Greatest Night in Pop

Image: Netflix

The quote that says it all

As the movie itself points out, the most important aspect of the whole night was when producer Quincy Jones posted a sign inside the recording studio that said “Check your ego at the door.” That’s what makes The Greatest Night in Pop feel special: It lets us inside the room where all-time great musicians simply felt like they were among friends and equals.

Most memeable moment

There are a number of incredible moments, like Waylon Jennings walking out of the recording studio while muttering “Ain’t no good ol’ boy ever sung in Swahili,” or Cyndi Lauper realizing that her massive necklaces were making so much noise that the microphones were picking them up alongside her voice. But if anything from this movie is going to be a meme, it’s Bob Dylan’s awkward grimace, right smack in the middle of the most famous faces in music, as he desperately tries to figure out how to sing in chorus with them. It’s incredible, and as Bob Dylan as anything could be.

Is The Greatest Night in Pop good?

Absolutely. It doesn’t quite reach the heights of documentary classics, falling short of the insight into the tortured circumstances and frustrated production of Original Cast Album: Company, or the pure musical excellence of Monterey Pop. But there’s something special about seeing these stars mingle that makes this movie a fascinating document on fame and the people behind it.

When can we see it?

The Greatest Night in Pop will be released on Netflix on Jan. 29.



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