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Review: The Greatest Night in Pop (2024)

The Greatest Night in Pop (2024)

Directed by: Bao Nguyen

Premise: A documentary about the recording of the 1985 song “We Are the World” which raised funds for famine relief in Africa.

What Works: “We Are the World” was a distinctly 1980s musical confection that drew together many of the biggest acts in pop music from that time including Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Cyndi Lauper, Ray Charles, and Stevie Wonder. The fact that so many major performers agreed to participate is itself impressive, all the more so because the recording was accomplished in a single evening after the 1985 American Music Awards ceremony. That fact is the hook of the documentary The Greatest Night in Pop which presents a tense narrative of producers running against the clock and navigating the egos of the talent. The film plays as a procedural, recounting the genesis and development of the song with most of the documentary’s running time dedicated to the recording session itself. The production of “We Are the World” was thoroughly documented with various takes and interactions between the contributors caught on camera. The film benefits from the testimonies of the surviving technicians and performers such as Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, and Kenny Loggins. The interviewees come across honest about the tensions of the recording process but they also speak frankly about what this project meant to them. Nearly forty years later, many of the people involved are now passed on and the remainder are in the twilight period of their careers; The Greatest Night in Pop has the soulfulness of aged retrospection as these people look back on their careers and assess the value of their work.

What Doesn’t: “We Are the World” was conceived as a way to raise money for the plight of starving people. Like a lot of celebrity activism, the emphasis of The Greatest Night in Pop is the performances of the participants rather than the plight of the poor. Starving people are mentioned in the film’s opening but are quickly rendered into an afterthought for the rest of the picture. The text at the end of the documentary claims “We Are the World” raised money for its cause but the filmmakers never substantiate if that money actually improved the conditions on the ground. While inflating the social significance of “We Are the World,” The Greatest Night in Pop also ignores any criticism of the song. “We Are the World” is lame. It is musically bland and the lyrics are dumb and sentimental. That critique was made by contemporaneous writers and those criticisms have been vindicated by time. The legacy of “We Are the World” is not really one of artistic accomplishment or social conscience but as an object of parody.

Disc extras: Available on Netflix. 

Bottom Line: Much like the song “We Are the World,” the documentary The Greatest Night in Pop is distinguished by its participants. The backstage stories and behind the scenes footage make this documentary engaging even if its subject is underwhelming.

Episode: #987 (March 3, 2024)