Reel Reviews | The Greatest Night in Pop (Sundance ’24)

by Tim Gordon

Everyone is familiar with the legendary charity single, We Are the World, but what if I told you the fascinating tale of how that song came to be?

Almost 40 years ago, a group of the most influential artists of that time came together to form the supergroup, USA for Africa to raise money for famine relief. The result was the song, We Are the World, which has raised over 160 million dollars since its release. While everyone is familiar with the song, it’s not until now that we learn the details of how this legendary record came to be.

Inspired by the UK collective Band-Aid and their hit, Do They Know It’s Christmas, its success presented an opportunity for singer/actor/activist Harry Belafonte, who wanted to create something similar in America. With a belief that Black entertainers should raise money to save Black people, Belafonte’s idea seemed simple, but it would launch a memorable musical odyssey that would prove unforgettable.

Working with a tight window, Belafonte enlisted super producer Quincy Jones to oversee the mammoth project. Jones suggested bringing together three legendary songwriters Lionel Ritchie, Michael Jackson, and Stevie Wonder create the song. While Wonder was unavailable, Jackson and Ritchie took on the project to create something special, and less than a week they produced a demo of the song. The next major challenge was “who” would participate. Many of their desired targets were either on tour or unavailable but once word got out that Jackson, Wonder, and Ritchie were aboard, the opportunities became endless. Soon pop superstars including Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, Kim Carnes, Waylon Jennings, Daryl Hall, Steve Perry, Bob Dylan, and others joined seasoned veterans such as Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, Al Jarreau, among others.

Much of the documentary centers on the aftermath of the night of the 1985 American Music Awards, hosted by song co-writer Ritchie, which served as the prelude for the gathering of recording industry titans. After the awards, the superstars all converged on A&M studios for a special star-studded recording. All the artists had to learn the song on the fly, since time was limited, and they had one night to complete the recording. Throughout the marathon studio session, there are plenty of moments of levity, tension, and ultimately magic that are now a part of music history and lore.

The film does a great job illustrating the palatable stress that many of the artists experienced as Jones nixed the idea of having each artist perform their part alone in private but chose to create a circle that would force each artist to sing in front of their peers, giving as Ritchie remarked “200 percent” on each take. Having to learn the song on the spot as well as working with the pressure to produce not just the song but the video capturing the historic proceeding, there was less than a month to put the entire project together.

What makes this story familiar, yet special is experiencing all the wonderful nuggets that are contained within the story. Seeing big stars behaving like fans around their peers, relaxed and experiencing time spent with each other all for a special cause. Many of the surviving members, stars, and production team provide colorful insight into the evening’s spectacle.

Directed by award-winning filmmaker, Bao Nguyen, The Greatest Night in Pop is a cinematically digestible look at a marathon session of musical creativity that has not been matched before or since. 46 of the biggest superstars in one room for one magical night and with many of the evening’s participants no longer with us and the spirit of that time long dissipated, it is wonderful to highlight humanity at its best.

Grade: B