The Greatest Night in Pop

Musicians holding concerts and supporting causes goes back a very long time, but certainly a tip of the hat to George Harrison for bringing the effort into broad public consciousness with his Concert for Bangladesh in 1971. The ex-Beatle gathered a group of like-minded musicians (including Bob Dylan) to raise funds for the destitute in that far away country. The effort is still generating and disbursing funds. Fast forward 13 years and it was another Brit, Bob Geldof (lead singer of the Boomtown Rats) who took a page from the Liverpudlian by gathering a bunch of musicians to record “Do They Know Its Christmas.” That song has become a perennial classic in December, and has been re-recorded several times for similar charitable results.

In 1985 Harry Belafonte, the noted singer, actor and activist observed that a bunch of white musicians had been looking after Blacks, and it was time for Black artists to step up the support. Quincy Jones, another giant in the entertainment business, enlisted Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson to write a song for charity.

Director Bao Nguyen does a great job with the documentary, mostly narrated by Lionel Richie, describing how Richie and Jackson fiddled about trying to come up with a song. Meanwhile Richie’s superstar manager Ken Kagan went to work with his prodigious Rolodex and began garnering commitments from musicians. Much the same way classic TV episodes of Mission Impossible started with Mr. Phelps assembling his team, this documentary likewise uses 8 x 10 glossies pinned to a bulletin board to show the progress in building the group of musicians who committed to the cause.

It quickly became evident that the only time to possibly get all these musicians in one room at the same time was the night of the then-venerable American Music Awards. Springsteen signed on, despite his rule of never traveling right after ending a tour. Nonetheless, he finished his concert in Buffalo (which I attended) and headed to LA. Soon you had Bob Dylan (there he is again), along with an astounding list of musicians.

High points of the documentary include Stevie Wonder doing an excellent Dylan impersonation to show the reticent Minnesotan how to sing the verse assigned to Dylan. Also humorous is when Wonder (unsuccessfully) insists some Swahili should be added to the lyrics. Things risk running off the rails when good old boy Waylon Jennings decides that was enough for him. But Jones keeps the train chugging all night long.

A chillingly beautiful moment is the sequence where Michael Jackson is solo in the studio, and you witness his stunning a cappella rendition. Sheila E, then part of Prince’s Purple Rain tour, was invited to join the assembly, but the filmmakers boldly reveal that she felt she was only included as a conduit to get her boyfriend Prince to show up.

Into the waning hours of the evening the “will he or won’t he show up” distracts many of the players. One wonders what Prince (and Jennings) thought after the song’s importance became evident.

With frequent cuts to the digital clock bringing the proceedings almost to daylight, it is finally time for Springsteen to record his verse, and he absolutely nails it.

“We Are The World” became the first single to be certified multiplatinum. I generally like music documentaries, and I liked this one better than I expected. Check it out.



Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.