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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Dan Webster: ‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ tells critical, insider’s story of musicians’ history

Lionel Richie attends the premiere of Netflix’s “The Greatest Night in Pop” at Egyptian Theatre on Jan. 29 in Los Angeles.  (Getty Images)
By Dan Webster For The Spokesman-Review

On the night of Jan. 28, 1985, dozens of that era’s top rock and pop artists gathered to make a recording.

But it wasn’t just any recording. It was for charity, specifically to raise funds for African famine relief caused by drought and the Ethiopian Civil War.

A year before, British musician Bob Geldof had organized a similar event, Band Aid, featuring notable UK pop and rock stars. And this prompted the American singer and social activist Harry Belafonte to do something similar.

Pretty soon record producer Ken Kragen was involved, Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson were commissioned to write a song. And the work began to figure out a suitable time and place to hold what was envisioned as a one-time recording session – and to attract a lineup of talent that would give the event the most publicity.

This, then, is the story that documentary filmmaker Bao Nguyen tells in the Netflix film “The Greatest Night in Pop.” And unlike any number of other such documentaries, Nguyen actually has a suspenseful – if not particularly critical – story to tell.

For one, Richie – who, along with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, Bruce Springsteen and Dionne Warwick, is interviewed – relates how he and the late Jackson weren’t in a hurry to finish their song until the final deadline was close at hand.

For another, since the idea was to congregate everyone in a single spot at the same time, the organizers had to deal with the respective stars’ individual schedules and, in some cases, demands.

A potential date became clear soon enough. Richie was scheduled to play host to the televised American Music Awards on Jan. 28. And since many of the invitees would be in Los Angeles to attend the show, that seemed like a perfect fit.

Finding a location to record was a bit more difficult since everything had to be kept quiet to avoid public attempts to crash the party. But that worked out as well.

Finally, there was the event itself, which featured a collection of artists, some – maybe several – of whom were privileged divas. For good measure, Richie posted a sign on the studio entrance: “Check Your Egos at the Door.”

The most entertaining aspect to “The Greatest Night in Pop” clearly is the inside view, captured in archival footage, of the musicians intermingling. Most had fun, save for Bob Dylan who never cracks a smile. Others, like Al Jarreau, partied a bit too much.

And Prince never showed up, a fact that caused Sheila E. – who also is interviewed – to leave early as she figured out she’d been invited mainly as a way to attract her reclusive friend.

“We Are the World,” the song that Richie and Jackson composed and was produced by Quincy Jones, ended up winning numerous awards. It also sold some 20 million copies and reportedly ended up raising in excess of $80 million.

The good news for Netflix subscribers is that it became the focus of a documentary film that, even four decades later, feels as fresh as if it had been recorded yesterday.