Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Sundance Review: How Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Quincy Jones and 44 Superstars Created The Greatest Night in Pop with “We Are the World”

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I’m not in Sundance. Netflix kindly sent me a link to Bao Nguyen’s “The Greatest Night in Pop” which is — I am sure — getting a huge, loud standing ovation right now at its premiere. The documentary of how the song “We Are the World” was made 39 years this coming week is incredibly entertaining and will leave you in tears. For people my age approximately, who saw this come together, you realize we have already reached the pinnacle of popular music in our time.

Even if you think you know this story, Nguyen and the producers have unearthed a lot of rare, unseen archival footage including Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson writing the song together.

So this is the story of how Lionel Richie’s manager, the late Ken Kragen– inspired by Bob Geldof — came up with the idea of creating a superstar single to shed light on the massive famine in Ethopia and other parts of the world. The year was 1985, which some might argue was the high water mark for the soundtrack of our lives. As Richie recalls in the film, they immediately called Stevie Wonder to help write the song. He was unreachable, so Richie and Quincy Jones, who’d just made three titanic albums with Michael Jackson,. went to the King of Pop to co-write the song. Jackson was then still clear, cogent, unmarked by too much eccentricity despite having a menagerie at his parents’ home including Bubbles the chimp and a hissing snake. Jackson fans will absolutely revel in their star’s appearance and magnificent vocals in this film.

The idea was to corral as many huge stars for a one night only recording session in Hollywood after the American Music Awards — which Richie was hosting. So Lionel was co-writing the song, helping Quincy and Michael organize the recording, and working all that night on stage. This was a time when the AMAs were important enough that A listers all showed up. So bringing them over to A&M Studios seemed like the best idea. No assistants or publicists were allowed, just a film crew. And around 46 superstars.

In the film — produced by Harriet Sternberg (who provides necessary history on screen) and Larry Klein, among others — Ngyuen builds a dramatic story that many people will remember, but does it in such a way that that feels like a cliffhanger. Stevie shows up at last and becomes sort of an underboss in the process, guiding icons like Bob Dylan and Paul Simon through the process. At one point someone remembers that he walked Ray Charles to the bathroom. “It was literally the blind leading the blind.” We do get to see the famous moment when Cyndi Lauper’s’ jewelry was found to be clanging while she sang, which gave everyone a good laugh.

Stevie also wants to include some kind of indigenous language in the song. He suggests Swahili, which sends country star Waylon Jennings out the door, never to return. But the rest of the gang persists even they’re dog tired. Famously, Quincy posted a sign that read “Check Your Egos at the Door,” and that’s what everyone did — even gifted drummer Sheila E., who says in the film she was happy to be there but felt like they were using her to lure Prince to the studio. (He never showed up.)

Kragen formed a charity called USA for Africa, which went on to bring hundreds of millions of dollars to Ethiopia. Many similar groups and songs followed including Live Aid and Farm Aid. There were so many charity singles with singing stars that eventually “Saturday Night Live” did their own parodies. In 2010, I attended the 25th anniversary recording, that featured Barbra Streisand, Gladys Knight, Adam Levine, Rob Thomas and many others. It was a very moving experience. But nothing compares to this original historic moment.

Much will be made of the stars — Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, Dionne Warwick, Bruce Springsteen, Al Jarreau, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross, etc — each at the peak of their vocal powers. But it’s up to Lionel Richie — who has survived Kragen and Jackson — to tell the story. And Quincy Jones, who one player praises not only for orchestrating the whole thing but also “being a psychiatrist.” It’s Quincy who weaves this spellbinding night into a piece of lasting art.

“The Greatest Night in Pop” premieres on Netflix on January 29th. Younger audiences will learn a lot about what the music industry was in its glory. For a people of a certain age, who remember a lot of this, seeing everyone so young will make this experience ever so much more bittersweet.

Roger Friedman
Roger Friedmanhttps://www.showbiz411.com
Roger Friedman began his Showbiz411 column in April 2009 after 10 years with Fox News, where he created the Fox411 column. His movie reviews are carried by Rotten Tomatoes, and he is a member of both the movie and TV branches of the Critics Choice Awards. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications over the years including New York Magazine, where he wrote the Intelligencer column in the mid 90s and covered the OJ Simpson trial, and Fox News (when it wasn't so crazy) where he covered Michael Jackson. He is also the writer and co-producer of "Only the Strong Survive," a selection of the Cannes, Sundance, and Telluride Film festivals, directed by DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
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