The creation of the global hit “We are the World” almost didn’t happen. Forty-six artists had just one night to turn chaos into magic. This film reveals the roller coaster ride of writing and recording the groundbreaking song that would raise millions to alleviate famine in Africa, win 2 Grammys, and become a global sensation. The only way for this to work was, as producer Quincy Jones requested, by leaving “the egos at the door.” It was January 28, 1985, and 46 vocalists had been summoned to record the audio and video of what would become the ninth single with the most physical copies sold in history.
The documentary The Greatest Night in Pop, now available on Netflix, chronicles how the iconic song “We Are the World” was created, a charity initiative to raise funds against hunger in Africa. The song co-written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie remained impregnated in the minds of generations. It was no small feat to bring together Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Wonder, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and more soloists under one roof, in absolute secrecy. But the result was totally worth it. Approximately $147 million was raised, and the track went on to win the Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Record of the Year. The single was promoted by activist and musician Harry Belafonte. Ritchie and Jackson were responsible for the song’s composition.
Bao Nguyen directs this trip to the past that delves into the protagonists’ anecdotes through candid interviews. Nostalgia is inevitable when thinking about the famous musical luminaries who contributed their talent to the project. Ritchie spends a good portion explaining how the song was written, the lyrics of which were completed ten days before the meeting in the recording studio. Initially Stevie Wonder was going to be part of the songwriting team; but due to unforeseen events at the time, the task was only left in the hands of Jackson and Ritchie. Five days before the big day, the “Isn’t She Lovely” singer joined in to record the demo.
Regarding logistics, the best way to mask the arrival of artists in Los Angeles, in addition to saving costs, was to take advantage the night of the American Music Awards. The recording was done in a studio in Los Angeles; not in private rooms, but in a large space with distributed microphones. Dividing the verses was a task left in the hands of vocal arranger Tom Bahler, who studied the styles and ranges of each participant. The goal was for them to “feel comfortable with what they had to sing.” However, there was an awareness that by having an unusual recording session, with so many talented people at the same time, there was a fine line between successful synergy and absolute chaos.
It has always remained a trivia fact that Prince was also going to be part of “We Are the World.” However, the interpreter never arrived at the appointment. The documentary does not dwell much on the reasons for his decision; but it does reveal which fragment of the song corresponded to “Purple Majesty.” It was the iconic solo on the bridge that was commissioned from Huey Lewis. On the other hand, although Prince did not get to sing with his colleagues; He did leave his contribution to the project with the donation of an original song.
Emotional moments, moments of tension. The first-hand testimonies take viewers, whether familiar with musical production or not, into an initiative that demanded patience and efficiency. With a final version completed by 8am, that was The Big Night of Pop. You can watch the documentary on Netflix.
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