In 1985, the song We Are the World became a powerful and positive anthem of hope, bringing together a remarkable lineup of music legends. The recording session for this iconic song has since become legendary, defined by a mix of nervous energy, strong personalities, and moments of creative inspiration that unfolded throughout an all-night session.

By Themba Khumalo

Imagine, if you will, a night where musical galaxies collided, illuminating the darkness with their celestial brilliance. Picture a dimly lit recording studio buzzing with energy as the world’s most iconic voices come together for a common cause.

Underneath the star-studded sky, icons such as Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, and Diana Ross were summoned to a gathering unlike any other. Egos were set aside as creative geniuses convened for an all-night recording session that would become legendary. The room was filled with goosebumps-inducing moments as talent intertwined effortlessly.

With cameras in tow and hearts brimming with anticipation, director Bao Nguyen takes us on an unprecedented journey through time and space. His documentary, aptly named The Greatest Night in Pop, grants us privileged access behind closed doors—doors that guarded secrets unseen by even the most ardent fans.

Nguyen’s documentary gives us the rare chance to relive this unforgettable evening. Through intimate interviews and behind-the-scenes footage, Nguyen captures the essence of that historic night brilliantly. From laughter-filled camaraderie to fleeting moments of doubt and insecurity, every emotion is laid bare for us to witness.

This awe-inspiring tale, which unfolds before our eyes, premiered on Netflix on 29 January.

Allow yourself to be whisked away by melodies that transcended borders and united souls across continents. Nguyen’s cinematic masterpiece paints a vivid picture of the scrambling chaos that blossomed into organised symphonies; an unwavering dedication to making a difference through music lingered in every note played and every lyric sung. Moments of creative kismet danced merrily amongst these talented stars as they took flight on wings crafted from passion and purpose.

The Greatest Night in Pop reflects an era when music possessed transformative powers—not just for those who listened but also for those who created it. Let yourself be enveloped in celestial harmony as Nguyen’s award-worthy documentary entwines the past and present, illustrating the irrevocable magic that transpired beneath the moonlit sky. Buckle up for a journey that traverses emotions, basks in nostalgia, and marvels at the divine nature of art.

“When I heard how they assembled the team, to me it was almost like a heist film,” Nguyen told The Hollywood Reporter. “You have Quincy Jones as the Danny Ocean of the whole effort. And they’re assembling the team — who’s the best rock star, who’s the best legend? There’s a bit of a ticking time bomb structure to what was, essentially, the making of one song.”

To produce the documentary, archival producers meticulously reviewed approximately 50 hours of recorded footage originally captured for a television special. Additionally, they obtained audio recorded by David Breskin, who wrote a Life Magazine article about the session.

The documentary features footage that has never been seen before and provides a behind-the-scenes look at the early planning of  We Are the World, including the writing sessions with Richie and Jackson, and takes viewers inside the studio where the song was recorded. It features interviews with artists who were present that memorable evening, such as Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick, and Huey Lewis, as well as musicians, engineers, and production crew, offering insights into one of the most iconic nights in music history.

Watching The Greatest Night in Pop, one gets a sense that Lionel Richie couldn’t help but experience a wave of nostalgia as he immersed himself in telling the mesmerising story of  We Are the World. The documentary takes him back to a time when music had the power to unite hearts worldwide and uplift spirits amidst the darkest times. Yet, hidden behind his smile, a lingering unease began to gnaw at him, as if whispering secrets from the past that questioned the impact such grand gestures had on shaping our world.

Richie explains that the one-night recording session, which brought together 46 renowned artists at the famous A&M Studios on La Brea Avenue on 28 January 1985, was an exceedingly challenging feat: “It was a nearly impossible task to pull off.”

The task was to record the song written by Richie and Michael Jackson to raise funds for famine relief in Africa, timed to coincide with the arrival of talent in Los Angeles for the televised American Music Awards that evening. The challenge was to finish the recording before the A-list musicians, which included Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon, Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Tina Turner, Huey Lewis, Kenny Rogers, and Bob Dylan, dispersed in the morning. The renowned producer Quincy Jones was in charge of the recording.

Richie recalls that the musicians involved in the project were scheduled to depart for their respective homes. He vividly remembers glancing at a clock on the studio wall at approximately 2 a.m. and realising the substantial amount of unfinished work that still had to be done. Richie says, “We were running out of time, and there was no possibility of extending the deadline.”

He reflects on the intense pressure he experienced during the production process, stating, “I found myself midway through, realising the gravity of the situation. It was a nerve-wracking experience, even though it occurred four decades ago.”

He humorously adds, “I had to reassure myself by acknowledging the success of the song’s release, reminding myself that we had achieved our goal.”

We Are the World achieved immediate commercial success, reportedly selling 1,000,000 copies within three days and holding the top position on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart for four consecutive weeks. Attributed to USA for Africa, the song was certified quadruple platinum and received Grammy Awards for both record and song of the year. Additionally, it is believed to have generated substantial humanitarian aid funds, amounting to tens of millions of dollars.

So grab your popcorn, step into the time capsule on Netflix and journey back to the remarkable year 1985, when a seismic pop culture event occurred. Delve into the heart of We Are the World and discover how it became more than just a song; it became a symbol of unity and compassion that continues to inspire generations.

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