Performing Arts

Documentary gives peep into 1985 recording of iconic 'We are the World' song

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Lionel Richie co-producer of The Greatest Night In Pop during the premiere of the documentary at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah, US on January 19, 2024. PHOTO | POOL

“We are the world. We are the children. We are the ones who make a brighter day so let’s start giving”

On January 28, 1985, some of the biggest names in American music gathered at A&M Studios in Hollywood, Los Angeles to record a song to support famine relief in Ethiopia. We Are The World became a global anthem using the power of music to turn the world’s attention to the hunger crisis in the Horn of Africa.

The story surrounding that historic recording is revealed in The Greatest Night In Pop, a documentary that premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival on January 19 and is available to stream on Netflix from January 29 2024. That date is significant because it marks exactly 39 years to the week the crème de la crème of American music gathered for a marathon recording session. As the 46 stars arrived at the studio straight from attending that night’s American Music Awards, they were greeted with a sign pinned by the record’s producer and conductor Quincy Jones, “please, check your ego at the door”.

Featuring never-before-seen footage, the film reveals the early planning stages of the recording done under United Support of Artists for Africa (USA for Africa), including the writing sessions of Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie. Some of the artists who were at that historic session including Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick and Huey Lewis, along with musicians, engineers and production crew reminisce about the events of that night.

Producer Julia Nottingham and director Bao Nguyen who worked together on the 2020 documentary Be Water about legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, reunite for this project that was conceptualised during the pandemic. “My parents were refugees from Vietnam and were music fans, though, and one of the lasting memories I had of childhood was listening to Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie records,” recalls Bao who was no more than 4 years old when We are the World was released. “Those echoes of childhood came back when Julia mentioned the project to me.

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Among the director’s first tasks was watching the 1985 documentary We Are the World: The Story Behind the Song hosted by actress Jane Fonda and from that he drew parallels with a heist storyline. “You have all these participants who each have their own superpower, they have this impossible task of assembling this iconic team and recording this song, and they have one night to do it.”

The new film takes a different approach to the earlier documentary by focusing on the run-up to the project, reframing the archive footage and giving the viewer a fly-on-the-wall peep into the scenes in the recording studio. The singers themselves admit their own anxieties, from the trembling knees of Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper concerned about her jewellery leaking into the microphone and Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan both nervous about their solos.

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A still from The Greatest Night in Pop by Bao Nguyen, an official selection of the Episodic Program at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival in Utah, US on January 19, 2024. PHOTO | POOL

Lionel Richie who cannot conceal his emotions through most scenes in the film provides the crucial link to the events surrounding the making of the song. “He is one of the most impressive, humble, hardworking stars I have come across,” says Julia Nottingham.

“From an editorial perspective, he is diligent, he’s thorough. He’s just amazing. He challenged us in the best ways and always wanted the best for it. He brought his best self to every moment in it.”

Although some of the videotapes were in poor condition and others were lost, an unlikely source came to the rescue. Journalist David Breskin who wrote an article for Life magazine about the project had kept his Dictaphone recording from the moment he was assigned the story, a few weeks prior to the recording, including in the studio.

Some of that audio was painstakingly synced to footage that had lost its audio. “No one has ever heard Michael and Lionel write that song,” says Julia “In the world of making archive films, these are gifts that you pray for, and when they arrive, you just thank your lucky star.”

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We are the World was officially released on March 7 1985, and in another milestone, over 8,000 radio stations around the world played the song simultaneously on April 5, 1995. The record sold more than 20 million copies and won three Grammy Awards in 1986, including Song of the Year and Record of the Year, and raised more than $60 million for charity.

“Considering the chaos that happened, considering the confusion that was there, on top of the egos, we are doing the video, we are doing the vocals, we are doing the background singers, we are doing the still shots for the cover of Life magazine, in 7 hours?” Quipped Lionel Richie during the premiere of The Greatest Night In Pop at the Sundance Film Festival last weekend. “It is impossible! It worked.”

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