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Nathan Weinbender reviews "The Greatest Night in Pop"

Film still from The Greatest Night in Pop (2024), featuring the members of USA for Africa.
The Greatest Night In Pop, Paramount Pictures/Makemake/Netflix, 2024.
Film still from The Greatest Night in Pop (2024), featuring the members of USA for Africa.


Before I get into the new documentary about the song “We Are the World,” I just want to say that “We Are the World” is a bad song. And it needs to be said, because the movie certainly doesn’t. The 1985 charity single, credited to a one-off group known as USA for Africa and featuring dozens of famous musicians, remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. It’s definitely catchy, and it raised money for a great cause, but it’s syrupy and painfully earnest and almost unlistenable.

That doesn’t mean its creation wasn’t fascinating, however—and the Netflix doc The Greatest Night in Pop is basically an extended Behind the Music episode about how the star-studded song came to be, as told by some of the people who were there.

“We Are the World” was the brainchild of Harry Belafonte and music manager Ken Kragen, who wanted to duplicate the success of the multi-continent Live Aid concert with a single that would raise money for famine relief efforts in Africa. They called upon Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie to write a song and Quincy Jones to produce it, and then they set out trying to convince a bunch of the era’s biggest rock stars to appear on the recording.

The Greatest Night in Pop is less a story about a song than it is a story of insane logistics: how exactly did they get a bunch of wildly famous people in the same room at the same time? And they got a cavalcade of stars, including Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, Hall & Oates, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joel and too many more to name.

Director Bhao Nguyen relies heavily on the footage that was shot for the accompanying music video, which documents the vocalists learning the song on the fly and sweating under hot studio lights for nearly 12 hours.

This footage is what makes the film worth watching, and the camera crew accidentally captured a number of personal moments and subplots. Stevie Wonder decides mid-recording that they should all sing Swahili on the track, and Waylon Jennings gets so frustrated that he storms out. Al Jarreau is drunk by the time he has to record his one-line solo, and he can barely get through it. No one can figure out what that weird clicking sound on the recording is, and it turns out to be Cyndi Lauper’s jangly nest of jewelry. And Bob Dylan, visibly uncomfortable through the entire process, gets his own wonderful little redemption arc.

The Greatest Night in Pop is another in a long string of shiny streaming documentaries that fail to interrogate their subjects beyond their most surface-level social impacts. This film is as edgeless as “We Are the World” itself, no doubt because Richie himself is a co-producer and the primary talking head. It whizzes past any opportunity to be a genuinely incisive piece of cultural journalism, and if you’re expecting an iota of commentary about any of it, you won’t find it here. The only hint of criticism comes from Sheila E., who says she felt suckered into participating because Quincy Jones incorrectly assumed that her mentor Prince would follow her to the studio.

But I can’t deny that I had a blast watching The Greatest Night in Pop, even while I was aware that it’s a total puff piece. It also leaves us wondering, why was Dan Aykroyd there? I guess one documentary can’t answer every burning question.

For Spokane Public Radio, I'm Nathan Weinbender.


Nathan Weinbender is a co-host of Spokane Public Radio’s Movies 101, heard Friday evenings at 6:30 PM here on KPBX.