fb-pixelThe Greatest Night in Pop documentary recounts We Are the World Skip to main content

Remember when music’s biggest stars sang ‘We Are the World’ for Ethiopian aid? Netflix does — in entertaining new doc.

‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ recounts the making of the 1980s video that became a viral sensation

Michael Jackson and Bob Dylan in "The Greatest Night in Pop."Netflix

Whatever you think of the song “We Are the World” — most agree the words and music are pretty saccharine — it did raise tens of millions of dollars to save, or at least aid, Ethiopians enduring a catastrophic famine in the 1980s.

To the extent anyone is familiar with the song nearly four decades later, it’s probably due to the video, which is memorable for its impressive collection of super-famous singers — Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Stevie Wonder, and two dozen others — gathered shoulder to shoulder in a recording studio. The video became ubiquitous (viral wasn’t yet a thing) when “We Are the World” was released in 1985 and has since tallied 145 million views on YouTube.


Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder in "The Greatest Night in Pop."Netflix

But as the entertaining new Netflix documentary “The Greatest Night in Pop” makes clear, there’s an interesting origin story behind “We Are the World,” and it almost makes me like the song. The impetus for the tune, it turns out, was singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte, who’d been moved by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” the 1984 famine-relief fund-raiser organized by Boomtown Rat Bob Geldof.

“We have white folks saving Black folks. We don’t have Black folks saving Black folks,” Belafonte can be heard saying, a reference to the homogeneity of Band Aid, the British (and Irish) supergroup that recorded “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

Belafonte quickly corralled a few influential friends, including producer Quincy Jones, Michael Jackson, and manager Ken Kragen, who enlisted his client Lionel Richie — then one of the biggest pop stars in the world — to write the song with MJ and also help Jones oversee its recording. (Richie serves as the documentary’s de facto narrator, and he’s extremely likable in the role.)

Because there was no email or texting in 1985, getting in touch with prospective performers wasn’t easy. Younger viewers may wonder what a Rolodex even is, but, thankfully, Kragen’s was immense — it filled an entire suitcase — and contained contacts for seemingly every artist on the Billboard charts. There was some hemming and hawing: Cyndi Lauper said yes; then, worried the song wouldn’t be a hit, said no; then said yes again. But once the likes of Springsteen, Stevie, Ray Charles, and Dylan, who doesn’t say yes to much, were confirmed, others were all in. (Huey Lewis couldn’t believe he was asked and, honestly, I can’t, either.)


The secret, all-night session took place at A&M Recording Studios in Los Angeles after the American Music Awards on Jan. 28, 1985. The doc does a good job of capturing the vibe in the cramped studio, including the uneasiness/awe some felt singing in front of so many luminaries: “That’s like the Statue of Liberty walking in,” someone says of Ray Charles. Given a line to sing because Prince was a no-show, Lewis confesses his legs went wobbly.

There are many great moments: Al Jarreau being too tipsy to hit his mark; Waylon Jennings walking out when Stevie asks everyone to sing a line in Swahili; and Ross looking, and sounding, utterly radiant. According to Kenny Loggins, the uncommon assemblage of talent prompted Paul Simon to joke: “Whoa. If a bomb lands on this place, John Denver’s back on top.”

Richie and others had been concerned about wrangling so many personalities — and egos — but in the end, everyone seemed to get along. Indeed, like the NBA stars who swap jerseys after games, the participants are seen getting each other’s autographs, and there’s occasional applause after someone nails their performance. “Steve Perry can sing,” Springsteen recalls thinking after Perry did his thing. “He’s got that great voice. Up in that Sam Cooke territory.”


Perhaps the documentary’s best scene involves Dylan, who looks uncomfortable as he stands at the microphone. He’s supposed to sing — “There’s a choice we’re making/ We’re saving our own lives/ It’s true we’ll make a better day/ just you and me” — but singing, in the conventional sense, isn’t really Bob’s bag. So he takes off the headphones and asks Stevie to play the song for him on the piano. Stevie not only obliges, he mimics Dylan’s voice perfectly over the melody. Dylan smiles and begins singing — or croaking — confidently.

Mark Shanahan can be reached at mark.shanahan@globe.com. Follow him @MarkAShanahan.