Sweating stars: Netflix’s ‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ covers the craziness during the recording of ‘We Are the World’

I did not really like the song “We Are the World” when it was originally released back in 1985. I preferred “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”/“Feed the World” with Sting and Bono, because I was Mr. Cool Pants, and I thought the Michael Jackson/Lionel Richie-penned song was pap. Plus, you know, Bananarama was on “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” and we all know how much they ruled.

Well, of course, I’m not that cool anymore. (Actually, I was never really cool; we can just get that out the way right now.) At this point, “We Are the World” brings back a wave of nostalgia, reminding me that I survived the ’80s, and that Willie Nelson has somehow outlived Michael Jackson.

The Greatest Night in Pop provided me with an all-new appreciation of the song by showing just how nutty the production was, with fun and moving footage of stars like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and Huey Lewis truly trying their best to record their solos at 4 a.m. after a long night sweating under studio lights.

There are things I found out for the first time watching this. Yes, I knew Prince didn’t show up because they wouldn’t let him do a guitar solo, but I didn’t know Stevie Wonder saved Bob Dylan’s ass by singing his part for him in rehearsal—in a dead-on Bob Dylan voice. Turns out Stevie does incredible impersonations. It’s tearjerker stuff when the visibly miserable Dylan finally cracks a smile and hugs it out after Stevie gets that verse out of him. I’ve never been so happy watching Bob Dylan.

Along with the archive footage, director Bao Nguyen gets some superstars to sit for new interviews, including a gracious Springsteen, the always-funny Cyndi Lauper, and the awesome, tragically underrated Huey Lewis. Huey confesses to being nervous beyond comprehension during the recording session—but let’s all admit it: The verse he belts out (followed by the harmony he performs with Lauper and Kim Carnes) is easily the best moment in the song. This was a day when Huey Lewis outshined the Boss and Bob Dylan.

I also didn’t know this recording event happened in one night—the same night when its organizer, Lionel Richie, was hosting the AMA Awards. They were able to pull this off because most of the stars just happened to be in town. Bob Geldof, who put together Live Aid and Band Aid, dropped by to deliver a rather dark speech that reminded everybody they were singing the song to stop deaths around the world. I’m guessing Willie Nelson probably thought it was just an excuse to get high with Lindsey Buckingham, because the stars seem a bit startled during Geldof’s words.

The eventual music video of the song showed everybody smiling and having a good time, but this doc shows them sweating and, in the cases of Sheila E. and Waylon Jennings, saying, “Screw this!” and heading for the door. Actually, Sheila E. (who did sing on the chorus) had a good reason: As she points out in a sit-down interview, she was supposed to get a verse to sing, but when she couldn’t get Prince to show up, her verse was mysteriously dropped.

This wasn’t a one-off, sing-it-in-an-hour endeavor where everybody was happy-smiley the whole time. It took a lot of work, and this doc does a great job illustrating that.

After seeing this, I think I might actually enjoy the song the next time I hear it. At the least, I’ll get a kick out of knowing Huey Lewis was nervous as all heck when he belted out “but if you just believe, there’s no way we can fall!” That really was the best part of the song.

The Greatest Night in Pop is now streaming on Netflix.

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