Review: The Greatest Night in Pop

I’m home sick (pro tip—if anyone ever offers you norovirus, say no), and I needed something that would be easy to watch. So I put on The Greatest Night in Pop, the documentary about the making of We Are the World.

I, like everyone else alive at the time, grew to loathe that song to my very core because it was everywhere all the time. I’ve tried to explain this phenomenon to my kids—how it used to be that a song was just inescapable for months at a time. They nod politely, but they can’t fully understand. BTW, this is a thing that has definitely changed for the better in our popular culture.

But enough time has passed, and I thought the sight of big stars being starstruck by all the other big stars in the room would be fun, and so it was! Also entertaining was Lionel Richie’s tale of trying to write the song with Michael Jackson because Stevie Wonder wouldn’t call him back, and the two of them just kind of noodling around until Quincy Jones showed up and demanded a song, and then banging it out in no time.

The song itself, is, of course, horrible. Just the worst kind of maudlin kitsch. Bruce Springsteen, in present-day interviews, alludes to this very tactfully and kind of says basically it was about a moment and a feeling rather than creating a timeless musical masterpiece.

But then there’s the hour-by-hour recounting of the recording session. Have you ever been to a recording session? I used to have friends in bands, and I went to a couple of recording sessions, and lemme tellya—they are tedious as fuck. The filmmakers try to instill some suspense with repeated shots of the clock—it’s 4 AM! Will they get it done? But of course we know they got it done, so seeing every little hiccup in the recording process is profoundly uninteresting. (Okay, Stevie Wonder trying to add some Swahili to the song, someone patiently explaining to him that they don’t speak Swahili in Ethiopia while Waylon Jennings walks out essentially saying he’s too racist to sing Swahili is kind of funny.)

So the movie should probably have been 60 minutes rather than 90. Or, perhaps they should have devoted the last 30 minutes to the aftermath. But that’s a very different story. More on that below.

As a teen, it was challenging to me to see artists I really liked and respected standing next to and performing with artists I really hated. Too often (especially in the teen years), music fandom devolves into cliquishness. I have to hate that band because some popular kid likes them. Or they’re not cool, or whatever. (and props to Little Steven, who, a year or so later, assembled a lineup of musicians that was cool top to bottom AND made a song that still slaps in the process. “Sun City,” if you’re playing at home. )

But this song and this video celebrate music as a force that, as Madonna said, makes the people come together. Too bad the song is such a treacle fest.

And then there’s the aftermath. And I get why this doesn’t make the cut of the movie because it’s not the story they’re trying to tell, but there is a title card celebrating how much money the song and the organization made. Which, okay, but what happened to the money?

You can read up on the Live Aid fiasco here—it seems the USA for Africa money might have been bundled with that, but I’m not sure. But if you don’t want to click through, the short version is this: in the modern world, famines don’t just happen. They are almost always caused by war and colonialism. In this case, the civil war in Ethiopia. Those kids starving on TV were starving because the government napalmed their farms, not because of some natural disaster.

So when you roll up to the guy who’s been napalming the farms and go, “hey, here’s a bunch of money!” it turns out he doesn’t spend it on feeding those people because he wants them to starve.


So, in the end, it turns out a bunch of rich people with good intentions and a lot of money can’t actually save the world. It turns out that blundering into complex problems you don’t understand is not actually the best way to help.

But that would be a pretty depressing coda to a mostly upbeat movie. Still, if you’re going to assert that this wasn’t just a bunch of people making a song but An Important Moment, I think you owe it to your viewers to be honest.

I lived through the era of all these benefit songs and concerts, and it was thrilling. They gave me hope, even though I thought, correctly, that We Are The World is a fucking terrible song. But I think the important part wasn’t the money they raised, which mostly made things worse, but the fact that they demonstrated art’s power to break down barriers that I thought were rock solid at the time. I got a similar giddy thrill when Sting made an album with Shaggy. Or when Alison Krauss and Robert Plant got together. Art is powerful! You can make music with someone who does something very different from you, and maybe something really cool and different will result! There’s your upbeat coda.