Review by Sean Boelman
If a documentary title includes the words “the greatest,” you expect a shower of praise for the subject. Still, the world might have something yet to learn from “We Are the World,” the focus of Bao Nguyen’s documentary The Greatest Night in Pop. While a celebration of the single at its heart, the film also offers a tremendous message for our divided society today.
The documentary tells the story of what is still the most star-studded recording session in history: that of the global pop song “We Are the World,” which was created as a fundraiser for African famine relief. Thankfully, the film doesn’t take much time to convince the audience that what they’re watching is historic because most of us already know.
In the film, Nguyen explores the creation of “We Are the World” with incredible detail. From when the song is being written to each solo within the recording session, we get a glimpse into how much of a miracle it is that this single could even be made — much less have as much of a cultural impact as it did.
The documentary features interviews with several of the (surviving) artists involved in the creation of the legendary single, including Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, Sheila E., and more. Some of the gaps from people who are no longer with us are filled by archive footage or secondhand stories from others involved.
Perhaps the wisest choice made by the filmmakers was telling this story primarily through the perspective of Lionel Richie, one of the leading creative forces behind the project. Richie’s contributions to the story lend a narrative through-line that keeps everything mostly organized despite the occasionally hectic nature of having more than 40 people in a recording studio.
There’s no denying that the film seems content with patting the artists behind this song on the back for doing a good job. For the most part, the film shies away from the behind-the-scenes drama that happened. There are cursory mentions of egos butting against one another, but the documentary presents these events in a way that almost feels too idyllic.
Yet, while The Greatest Night in Pop can feel somewhat fluffy and overly nostalgic at times — and with a title like that, it’s hardly a surprise — the filmmakers and subjects understand the significance of this collaboration. Although the specific cause may not have the same urgency it had nearly four decades ago, the film does a great job of discussing other charitable efforts that came as a result of USA for Africa, such as Live Aid, inspiring people to put aside our differences to make a positive difference.
The Greatest Night in Pop is an entertaining, inspiring documentary that will delight anyone who was a fan of “We Are the World” or any of the artists who contributed to it. Although it’s unlikely to make a huge cultural impact like the single whose story it details, the documentary serves as a poignant reminder of the power we can have if we come together.
The Greatest Night in Pop is screening at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, which runs January 18-28 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 25-28.