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From left to right: Sheila E., Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson. Image design: Tina Tiller.
From left to right: Sheila E., Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson. Image design: Tina Tiller.

Pop CultureFebruary 29, 2024

‘Check your ego at the door’: Why you should watch The Greatest Night in Pop

From left to right: Sheila E., Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson. Image design: Tina Tiller.
From left to right: Sheila E., Lionel Ritchie, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson. Image design: Tina Tiller.

Claire Mabey reviews the new Netflix documentary about the making of 1985 hit single ‘We Are The World’.

The Greatest Night in Pop is a deftly stitched documentary that takes us inside the making of the 1985 hit single We Are the World, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Ritchie and performed by an ensemble of mega stars to fundraise for the devastating famine in Ethiopia.

At the start of the film we learn the whole thing was in fact Harry Belafonte’s idea. After the success of Do They Know It’s Christmas? by Band Aid the year before, Belafonte said: “We have white folks saving black folks – we need black folks saving black folks.”

So he called Lionel Ritchie to get the project going, and the rest of the documentary is firmly fixed on Ritchie’s heroic efforts to pull off a high-stakes, one-night-only recording session with some of the biggest artists of the 80s. The entire film is a rush – a weird, beautiful, excruciating, poignant, marvellously insane, wondrous bubble of star-powered collision. 

As someone who has spent the best part of 20 years navigating the logistics, the heightened intellectual exchange, the emotion of bringing artists together to create events, I recognised many of the highs and lows of the film’s rollercoaster energy. The documentary threw up some of the most crucial and complex elements of collaborative art-making – as potent today as it was on 28 January 1985.

Legendary Dionne Warwick singing her solo with legendary Willie Nelson.

The weird

“I saw this horror movie and it’s not good for the brother,” says Lionel Ritchie, recalling the time he was hissed at by a giant snake at Michael Jackson’s house while they were writing what would become ‘We Are The World’. 

Jackson, with his Schiaparelli-esque jacket and dark aviators and that voice, is central to the show, and watching him from this vantage point in time was confusing and compelling. As an elder millennial (I was born mere days after We Are The World Was released on 7 March) I found it confronting to watch the fallen hero of my youth. It’s hard to explain to those who didn’t live through it just how magnificent and troubling Michael Jackson was to a 90s kid. The music, the music videos, the clothes, the moonwalk, the gloves, the oddness of his physical metamorphosis and his behaviour. He was beyond iconic.

The Michael Jackson of this film is shy, strange, and talented. There is no denying the ethereal sweetness of his pitch-perfect voice. Ritchie remembers him with something like mystified respect: “He called me Lion-elle.” He recalls the songwriting at Jackson’s house being interrupted by a dog barking at a pet myna bird that Michael explained could talk and therefore annoyed the dog. And when the giant pet snake slithered out of hiding, Michael’s response was, “There he is Lion-elle! He heard us singing Lion-elle. He’s come to meet you!” 

Prince, too, comes off quite oddly. Everyone wanted Prince to be part of the project, but he never showed (Huey Lewis gets his solo and becomes beautifully fizzy about it, even in the talking head: “from that moment on I was nervous out of my brain!”). The documentary hovers over various explanations for Prince’s reticence, the sum of which adds up to: Prince was uncomfortable about something. The footage of Prince winning big at the American Music Awards that night focuses on the fact that he takes to the stage accompanied by a huge, suspendered, personal bodyguard called Chick (reminiscent of Hulk Hogan only bigger). Chick’s presence is laughed off by one of the recording engineers in his talking head, suggesting he thought Prince was being paranoid: “he wasn’t going to be attacked walking up to the stage!”

The documentary weaves in footage and an interview with Sheila E, a dazzling artist and Prince’s percussionist at the time. Sheila E is so electrifying on screen, both in the historic footage and in her talking head, that I wonder how I hadn’t heard of her until now. An answer comes, partially, later when we all realise that she’s only invited to the We Are The World Recording as a lure for Prince. Sheila E’s present-day explanation is that he was never going to show because there were too many people and he would have been uncomfortable. We’re left, however, with the haunting sense that much has remained unsaid on the matter.

For some wild reason when Ritchie and Jones and co were selecting the artists they decided not to invite Madonna. This is not fully explained. Instead they went for Cyndi Lauper who is dubbed, mysteriously, as a trouble-maker along with Stevie Wonder (also weird given he seems the opposite – see below). 

Grainy still of Michael Jackson in the We Are The World video.

The stressful

Everything about this project boggles the modern mind. The songwriting done at speed (and among Michael Jackson’s menagerie of noisy and frightening critters), the late-night-to-breakfast-time recording session with artists already exhausted by the tension and hype of the American Music Awards which was on the same night (chosen for the logistical ease of stars already congregating in LA). And all without the internet! Shots of typewriter letters and voice-overs of old fashioned telephone conversations hark back to slower, analogue days which makes the feat seem all the more incredible. At one point Kenny Loggins says, after we get a glimpse of the letters sent to artists with the location of the recording studio: “I, like many artists I know, don’t remember shit”. 

The historic footage of the night cuts at intervals to the alarming red numbers of a digital clock. The hour grows later and later – 1AM, 2AM, 4.20AM, 6AM – like an extended episode of The Bear only with singers instead of chefs and music instead of food. The exhaustion and the stress shows: the musicians rub their faces, frown, stare detachedly at Quincy Jones and quiet little Michael Jackson who at one point steps in to teach them a layer of chorus. 

When Stevie Wonder suggests adding in lyrics in Swahili, Waylon Jennings leaves in an exasperated huff and touchy debate bounces between the need to bring “something cultural” to the song and the view that it was too late and inauthentic considering nobody there actually spoke the language. It’s a debate that resonates in art-making today.

Technical issues plague Dionne Warwick’s solo around four o’clock in the morning, and Cyndi Lauper’s solo is haunted by a “giggling” sound under the voice. After a while they figure out it’s the clicking of the many beads around her neck (iconic) and they have to be lifted off. There’s something utterly compelling about Lauper: her pronounced New York accent, her Barbie earrings, her brilliant hair, her wild singing. The clacking jewellery only enhances her presence on screen. 

Cyndi Lauper sans noisy necklaces.

The vulnerability of Bob Dylan

For me the heart of the documentary is Bob Dylan. It’s easy to forget that extremely famous and successful people get nervous too. But from the start Dylan is paralysed. After watching the many, many memes of Dylan’s awkward mumbling derived from this very documentary footage, I always assumed he was probably just off the planet on drugs. 

What transpires over the course of the film is that Dylan is terrified, out of context, in a musical environment that doesn’t suit him. “The 80s wasn’t the best time for Dylan,” says Ritchie as the doco cuts to footage of the iconic “concerned artist”, mouth barely moving, among the swaying choir of pristine voices. 

As an ardent Dylan fan, the rusty, broken-saw timbre of his voice will never bother me. But one can appreciate that with Dionne Warwick, and Diana Ross, and Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles, and Paul Simon and Kenny Rogers, and even Huey Lewis in the room, he might feel out of place and more than a little inadequate. 

It is excruciating to watch Dylan when it comes to his turn in the circle of solos (they’re literally all in a circle, singing their solos across the floor from each other). He bottles out. He reminded me of myself, when I hadn’t practised a piano piece well enough when I was nine years old and had to perform in front of a whole load of people and my hands shook and I could barely press the keys. He looks utterly hopeless. 

The vulnerability is arresting and beautiful. The magnificent Quincy Jones, who orchestrates the entire recording, had earlier taped a note over the arch of the doorway to the studio that said “Check your ego at the door”. The Dylan of this documentary is void of ego. He is simply one nervous superstar among a literal chorus of them.

The gold comes when Dylan calls on Stevie Wonder: ”Stevie, Stevie will you play it for me?” You can see the desperation etched into his face. What Wonder does next is so graceful and charming you get caught again on why he’s ever labelled a trouble-maker. Wonder sits at the piano and perfectly mimics We Are The World in the style of Bob Dylan, to Bob Dylan, essentially teaching him how to sing his own part in his own way. The smile on Dylan’s face is more than gratitude: it’s relief, and friendship and support.

Bob Dylan going for it after some coaching from Stevie Wonder.

The delightful

There are so many moments to savour. Lionel Ritchie at large: his exceptional energy, his concern for all of the artists. The fact he hosted the American Music Awards, won a ton of awards at the same time, and then raced to the studio to fuel the vibe of the recording is Herculean of the highest order. 

Then there’s the ever-present brilliance of Quincy Jones. His authority over what must have been, even for him, an intimidating room; the obvious respect he commands from tour-weary, gravel-voiced, famous people. When he yawns at the end of the night and says “the adrenaline has taken the train,” you want to hug and thank the man. When Lionel Ritchie tells us that Diana Ross was the last to go because she “didn’t want to leave” you want to linger with her too. 

As someone who has been long addicted to the heady turbulence that is making live art events, I recognised on a cellular level Quincy’s comedown, and Ross’s clinging sense of loss. Briefly, this “terrifying circle of life” (Ritchie’s description of the stars in the room) was a family. What they went through was an intense setting aside of ego for philanthropic endeavour: the power of the documentary is a ghostlike honour of watching the process from 39 years in the future. 

There’s also a simple awe in seeing so many pop icons together: nervous of each other, and starstruck, too. There’s a moment when they all start signing each other’s music and the recording studio descends into giddy, joyous connection. 

The most grounding moment (apart from Dylan and Wonder) comes when Bob Geldof is invited by Quincy Jones to address the artists at the start of the recording. It’s a canny move by Jones: Geldof speaks softly, almost reluctantly (I imagine that he, too, was terrified at addressing “the circle”), to remind them that the reason they’re all there is for the people dying in Ethiopia. You can see the focus in the room shift away from thoughts of post-awards ceremony tiredness and glamour, and towards a more humble purpose. 

The Greatest Night in Pop begs the question of what the superstars of today could achieve if they got into a room together, checked their egos at the door, and pooled their power for the greater good.

The Greatest Night in Pop is available to watch on Netflix now.

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