In late 1984 the singer and activist Harry Belafonte was both impressed and perturbed by “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” a British charity single featuring a cast of pop stars. The proceeds from the project went to Ethiopian famine relief. Belafonte complained to the music manager Ken Kragen, “We have white folks saving Black folks and we don’t have Black folks saving Black folks.”
Such was the spur for the 1985 song “We Are the World.” The creative nucleus was Black: its writers, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson; Stevie Wonder (who didn’t get a writing credit but, as relayed in the film, was invaluable to the whole creative process); and the producer-arranger Quincy Jones. How the project turned into a one-night-only superstar fest — “If a bomb lands on this place,” a droll Paul Simon quipped while surveying the room, “John Denver’s back on top” — is chronicled in “The Greatest Night in Pop,” directed by Bao Nguyen.
While the making of the song was partially detailed in its long-form video, there’s plenty of new, engaging, and sometimes eyebrow-raising anecdotal material here. Wonder’s impromptu notion of singing a phrase in Swahili (which was squelched when it was pointed out that Swahili isn’t spoken in Ethiopia) compelled the country star Waylon Jennings to walk out of the session. A nervous Cyndi Lauper was almost dissuaded from participating by her (unnamed) then-boyfriend, who thought the record would flop. And a few interviewees relay that Al Jarreau was tipsy throughout.
Bob Dylan did not sit for a present-day interview, but Bruce Springsteen did. One of the handful of rock stars who’d also make an excellent rock critic, he’s a vivid docent and apologist for the song: “Steve Perry can sing! He’s got that great voice. Up in that Sam Cooke territory.” As the assembled room pays tribute to Belafonte, a salty joke improvised in song by Stevie Wonder is worth the price of a Netflix subscription.
The Greatest Night in Pop
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. Watch on Netflix.