To Imagine One World: Netflix’s “The Greatest Night in Pop”

A sense of poignancy runs all through the recent Netflix documentary, “The Greatest Night in Pop,” and its branches spread out in multiple directions.

One branch brings the simple passage of time into sharp relief. As we gaze upon a gallery of superstar musicians in their creative prime who assembled on one fabled night in Los Angeles nearly 40 years ago to sing one song—“We Are the World”— on behalf of African famine relief, we know that a good number of them are no longer bound to earth. (Michael Jackson, Harry Belafonte, Ray Charles, Al Jarreau, Tina Turner, Kenny Rogers, Waylon Jennings, two of the Pointer Sisters).

Another branch shows those still living who consented to interviews these years later. We see at least some of them as barely recognizable ghost images of their physical selves in 1985. (As are we, if we were around then.) (As I was…)

Not that they aren’t still vibrant, engaging and funny, but really: Just who is that bearded, grizzled, bespectacled, gravelly-voiced guy trying to sell himself as the AARP version of the impossibly cool and suave dude who used to be Huey Lewis?

For the record, Lewis (pictured to the right), who suffered severe hearing loss years ago and can no longer sing, is a revelation in this film. His humbleness and joy in more or less equal measure perfectly captures the “Wow!” factor many of these world-famous artists expressed at finally meeting and singing next to other world-famous artists they had long admired.

Who knew that Diana Ross, the very epitome of diva-hood, had long harbored a jones for Daryl Hall (of Hall & Oates)?

Vocal arranger Tom Bahler, one of the many unsung background heroes of the evening, shares a lovely episode in which the 44-47 (reports vary) assembled singers take a mid-of-night break along with the accompanists and crew to nosh on take-out chicken and waffles. Ross uses the occasion to approach Hall with her music sheet in hand and says, “Daryl, I’m your biggest fan. Would you sign my music for me?” 

‘Holy moly!” Bahler exclaims. Ross’s gesture inspires everyone else to give into the same finally acknowledged desire, and the little rush of subsequent autographing activity looks not terribly dissimilar to a teenage girl fanfest, the artists sheepish but glad-hearted as they extend paper and pen into the hands of their admired heroes/peers.



The breathtakingly talented Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie play key roles in the evening, and it is Richie, still dashing and exuberant at 74, who serves as the documentary’s story-telling pivot point.

He shares hilarious details of his collaboration with the idiosyncratic Jackson to write the music and lyrics. Hemmed in by the crazy work schedule his soaring popularity had won him, an impossibly tight time window, Jackson’s preference to work in his bedroom, and obligatory introductions to Jackson’s chimp, dog, and mynah bird, Richie is finally electrified (not in a good way) by Jackson’s pet python, who slithers out from a mound of record albums it knocks over, flicking its tongue all the way.

“I am screaming like it’s….This is the end,” Richie says. “I saw this horror movie, and it’s not good for the brother.”

One can’t help but view Jackson, shy among his peers and most all the world, really—until he lets loose in song or dance—with great poignancy.

Poignancy for all the might-have-beens of his life, were it not for the accumulation of mystery-cloaked “somethings” that seemed to knock that life right off its rails.

For the musical genius that is evident through the creative sessions with Richie upon which the film lets us eavesdrop.

And also his moments of shining on stage, his peers gawking in admiration during the recording, before he retreats again into the shadows. Richie’s respect and care for him is evident throughout.


The veritable Who’s Who of ’80 pop stars was corralled into the graveyard time slot of 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. to take full advantage of most of them already being in town for the evening’s American Music Awards (where the tireless Ritchie filled emcee duties). Then everyone had to find their way to the studio, bleary, boozy or not. (Al Jarreau was both, which slightly complicated matters at the time but engenders laughter from Richie in the film.)

All of them had received only basic music sheets under tight secrecy prior to arrival, both rehearsal and recording needing to happen through the long night ahead. The industry giant Quincy Jones was on hand as the producer.

As we can only imagine, Jones and Ritchie each had to be as much psychologist as music maven, their assembled stable of high-strung artists unsure of themselves in this unfamiliar setting, absent their customary entourages, amidst a gaggle of artists arguably more famous than they are.

“Check your ego at the door,” a sign above the studio entrance reads. Documentary director Bao Nguyen, just two years old at the time but a son of Vietnamese immigrants who had both Richie and Kenny Rogers in their record collections, remembers hearing the song through childhood but paying no great attention since. In an interview with last month, he describes viewing reams of archival footage from the evening and slowly coming to appreciate the intense psychological dynamics at play::

“You just assume these icons are just the coolest people in the room of any room they walk into. But when you know you’re going into the room and Ray Charles is walking in the room, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the list can go on, that changes things, it humanizes everyone. As Lionel says in the film, ‘It was like the first day of kindergarten.’”

From the evidence through the film’s 97-minute running time, including this typical shot to the right of an obviously discomfited Dylan trying to feel his way into some semblance of cohesion with a slew of singing voices hopelessly unmatchable with his own, the ego-checking slogan, along with Richie’s kindergarten reference, seem to serve as major touchpoints through the evening.

A funny—and revealing—scene: Jackson had fashioned a nonsense “sha-lum sha-lin-gay” lyric as a bridge. We see artists looking raptly at their song sheets to grasp the tune, the lyrics, and their designated parts, most all of it on the fly. Obviously not how they are used to operating but making the best of a demanding situation.

Several hours into the recording, Stevie Wonder, who had failed to return any of Richie’s increasingly impassioned phone calls to join him and Jackson in composing the song in the weeks before, pipes up with an idea to internationalize it by changing the “sha-lum” lyric to something in Swahili. Richie, Jones and a seemingly large contingent of other singers express severe reservations about introducing an entirely new element at something like 3 a.m.

Wonder is seen to hold fast to his case, despite increasingly anxious milling about by others, someone also informing him that besides the time factor impinging, Ethiopians, whose famine of the time was to be the focus of the song’s initial proceeds, do not speak Swahili.

If you’ve ever sat in an overly long meeting when someone brings up a similarly exasperating suggestion that threatens to extend everyone’s time and thus patience beyond the breaking point, you’ll have a sense of the tension in the air for those moments, the fate of the entire enterprise hanging in the balance.

Wonder finally relents, but not before Waylon Jennings, famous Texas “outlaw” that he was, up and leaves the building, grousing on his way out, “No good ol’ boy sings in Swahili.”

A portent of red-blue division that was yet to break out as severely as it since has in the wider world? Or just a juicy tidbit that makes us both laugh and more richly appreciate the fact that this star-spangled venture ever came to fruition at all?

In any case: “Sha-lum sha-lin-gay” finally gives way to “One world, our children” in the final version.


All right—if the song and production are not completely burned into your brain and you’d like to give it a listen, it’s here below, along with the movie trailer. And let me not forego a shoutout to director Nguyen for compiling and crafting a near-perfect blend of musical history, artist profiles, production primer and creativity sketch, not a moment of it any less than absorbing.

Meanwhile, some closing notes on a last branch of poignancy the film exudes in abundance.

Like most all off-the-charts pop culture works, “We Are the World” has spawned more than its share of criticisms and parodies—too shallow and sentimental, too grandiose and self-important, blah blah blah.

At the risk of waxing cynical about such cynicism, perhaps it’s only my age that suggests to me we’re running out of time to cast aspersions on artistic works meant to engender joy, happiness, and brotherly-sisterly love in the human heart. Not to mention on an effort that manages to get such a blue chip group of artists and support crew together to pull an all-niter, none of them earning a penny for their efforts, and raising $80 million ($214 million in 2023 dollars) on the strength of 20 million record sales and a bushel of industry awards.

Yes, hunger and multiple other miseries still prevail around the world. No collection of wealthy celebrity artists or a million Mother Teresas will ever solve those problems en masse.

But I couldn’t help thinking while dabbing tears at multiple points of this film that even its basic vision, its professed fantasy and dream of “one world,” of being responsible for and to each other, seems increasingly endangered today.

Are we as good and hopeful anymore as we were in 1985?

Do enough of us even dare lift our heads from our gadgets and shopping lists to counter the enormous shadow cast by conspicuous wealth and ever more radical income disparity, by maniacal mass shooters, by anti-tax, anti-government, anti-immigrant, anti-science, anti-everything, to a place beyond “I give up” or “I’m angry and I’m not going to take it anymore!” to “I will try, despite how tiny my own efforts are.”?

Perhaps the true and pertinent question is not “Are we as good…?” but instead, “Are we still trying?” Not so much as individuals, though that is certainly where it starts. But as a country, a society, a culture, woven inextricably into the one world around us, all our fates ever more tied together by ever darker challenges of climate, technology, weaponry, political alignment, the availability of food and water.

The song title is actually spot-on: We are the world. There’s no avoiding it, and no amount of isolationist, go-it-alone sentiment will change that fact.

And the converse is just as true: The world is us. Will we recognize and accept that truth soon enough to save ourselves—along with, of course, everyone else? Can we and dare we?




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9 comments to To Imagine One World: Netflix’s “The Greatest Night in Pop”

  • kirkthill  says:

    Hey Andrew, one again you have produced a much appreciated, insightful and informative piece. I am noticing that the concern for this planet has changed a few minds and may be the next vehicle we can ride to unify this horribly divided world. On another note: I am trying to fill up a 129 Gig flash drive with music and this cast has reminded me of a few artists that I have missed.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Glad to be of service, Kirk, but oh man, you’d better keep at it if you’re going to fill up 129 gigs! And then the subsequent challenge: finding time to listen to even a fraction of it! I guess it’s like the 31 Flavors ice cream joint, though—you may always opt for the sme one or two, but it’s comforting in some way just to know the others are there!

      I sure hope you’re right about climate & planetary survival inching up the hierarchy of public concerns. I was reminded & thinking some more the other day about predictions that the earth will be fried by the sun, no doubt about it, in some five billion years. I’m guessing we’ll have figured out how to inhabit other planets by then, but there’s sure no reason to hurry up that development any more than strictly necessary, eh?

  • Joan  says:

    Andrew, great topic for you to dig into. This documentary had so many outstanding, human, familiar lines for anyone working with crazy-talented people on a tight timeframe (bring back some memories?). For instance, one organizer said that in a group like this the one thing you never say is “What do you think?” Also, that Stevie Wonder wanted to help write the song and had to be told (firmly and repeatedly) that sorry, the song was already written, now was the time to sing it.
    And through it all…. the deadline loomed.
    I could care less about that song, but it is a helluva movie.

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Yeah, Joan, the movie captured the essence of most crazed creative projects under impossible deadlines. I rather enjoyed the nice adrenaline rush and fun memories watching it come together, but my word, what those guys—Richie and Jones mostly—accomplished with that group in that one night was just this side of miraculous. I’m glad it wasn’t me sweating bullets eyeing the damn clock and the looks of apprehension and fatigue from a roomful of superstars used to creative control!

      That Stevie Wonder interlude was in many ways the most interesting part of the film for me. It had me wondering whether his somewhat bull-headed insistence on inserting some Swahili into the song at that late hour was strictly about ego or possibly because being blind, he missed the visual cues from those around him, whose faces showed they were obviously sour on the idea, but them being polite and this being Stevie Wonder, they were too diplomatic by half until they finally stalled him long enough for the notion to collapse. Helluva scene, helluva movie; I’ll likely watch it again just to get a better sense of everyone.

  • Jay Helman  says:

    The documentary is magnificent, touching, nostalgic, and (for its time) hopeful. Your question “are we still trying?” strikes me as critical to the discussion. And, if we are, or are going to, what would it look like? Who would be involved? Is it up to artists alone? Do athletes have a role (think audiences for Super Bowl, NCAA championships, the World Series, and so on. In the end, I’m not certain that any segment of human influencers can band together in a way that will solve the complex and heart-wrenching problems of the world. Yet, as you ask, are we trying? With the 2024 presidential election on the horizon we will soon learn if our own citizens grasp that “we are Democracy and rule-of-law.” We are the people, we have the vote. Are we gonna try?

  • Robert Spencer  says:

    Corralling egos and giving structure to an event like “We Are the World” is a perfect storm for a wind of insanity, waves of chaos, and a lot of “OMG” is this ship going to sink. I can imagine after it ended Lionel Ritchie singing, “Now that the music’s over, I’m gonna turn out the lights and find myself a dark corner of the studio and down several martinis and a hit or two on a leftover doobie.” Music aside, the message in “We are the World” demands immediate attention because so much is happening so quickly in so many different directions that I fear my nine grandkids will have no idea why Earth is called the Blue Planet. Skies black. Water a dark gray. Glaciers brown. AI abuse. Goose-stepping totalitarianism. These are not national issues. They’re global. No country can withdraw into a shell and expect to survive. It won’t be a cobalt-thorium G Doomsday Machine, but, unless we can all come together and find sensible ground on which to solve these issues, we may turn to a General Jack D. Ripper for a solution. Too many Americans right now find their essence in the form of the Mar-a-Lago orange narcissist.

  • Andrew Hidas  says:

    Million dollar questions there, Jay, and in soberly reflecting on them I think I have come to the conclusion we must all do what we can, and then we will get the country we collectively deserve. If a lawless, bellicose, dictator-praising vision winds up prevailing, then so be it, and those of us in the minority will be left to pick up the pieces in resistance, or go live in exile, or whatever. I wish that was an overly dramatic, alarmist vision, but I fear not alarmist enough, and we will see how it all turns out in November…

    Hard not to turn dark and fearful for the generations still to come, eh, Robert? It’s T.S. Eliot all over again, surveying the wreckage of WWI: “What shall we do tomorrow? ‘What shall we ever do?” At this point, I think what we can mostly do is stay alert, compassionate, and supportive of the younger generations who are necessarily tasked with forging ahead as every previous generation has in the eternal to ‘n fro of history. Humankind’s problems, along with its accomplishments, didn’t begin and end with us, but are part of a long-running stream with many rapids and rivulets—along with eddys, where those of us of a certain age now spend much more time than not. Still, on the fairly regular occasions when I’m around young people today I am most always buoyed rather than dismayed, so I am throwing my lot in with them and the heroic, challenging work they will be doing to write the next chapters of this country in its absolutely inextricable relationships, as you suggest, with the larger world.

  • Arjan Khalsa  says:

    The video of the song is, in itself, so moving. I find that it amplifies the power of each unique human voice. Tears well up within me as the song progresses. And as those tears subside, a new voice calls out – Stevie Wonder, or Cyndi Lauper, or Bruce Springsteen, or Tina Turner – and I am slain again. I read this blog, listened to the embedded video, heard those voices, I could not stop the tears!

    • Andrew Hidas  says:

      Here’s to your unjadedness, Arjan—I’m with you! (Though it’s a struggle sometimes…)

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