The main appreciation that anyone watching “The Greatest Night in Pop” will have is that Quincy Jones is a master. Yes, Lionel Richie (who is the main interview subject here) and Michael Jackson had a lot to do with the success of “We Are the World,” but it’s Quincy who somehow wrangled all those talented personalities into one of the biggest recordings of the 1980s. Watching him work is fascinating, an example of a true musical genius doing what he does better than nearly anyone. (Bob Geldof rules too, by the way.)
Before that, “The Greatest Night in Pop” does a lot of set-up regarding the music scene and the key players in 1984, leading up to the decision by Harry Belafonte (who is appropriately feted here as one of the key figures of the 20th century) to make a sort of response to “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” with an American single to fight African hunger. Richie and Jackson became the key songwriters—Richie has a few good stories about working at MJ’s house, surrounded by a menagerie of animals, including Bubbles—and it was music manager Ken Kragen who had the brilliant idea in terms of timing. Richie was hosting the American Music Awards on January 21st, 1985, and Kragen basically called everyone performing or attending to come to a studio after the show and make music history.
The first act of “The Greatest Night in Pop” does a lot of introducing/reminding of the key players. Why was Stevie Wonder’s involvement so essential? Why did they pick Cyndi Lauper over Madonna? Did they try to get Prince? How scared was Huey Lewis? Tragically, no one ever answers why Dan Aykroyd was there.
After that kind-of-generic VH1 intro segment, when everyone gets to the studio, “The Greatest Night in Pop” lives up to its potential. There’s tons of footage from the night and some great trivia, much of it shared by participants like Sheila E., Bruce Springsteen, Huey Lewis, and Smokey Robinson, who reveals how he talked Jackson out of some bad lyric changes because he was one of the people not scared to stand up to the King of Pop. From Richie’s eating habits to Dylan’s apprehension at the vocal range to changing lyrics in the moment, those who love music process docs will be enraptured. Music bio-docs may be running out of steam, but “The Greatest Night in Pop” works by being specific and enlightening.
Naturally, it leads one to wonder if something like “We Are the World” could be pulled off today (and don’t you dare mention that “Imagine” abomination). There is a sense that what happened in that studio in 1985 was singular and special. Was it the greatest night? I don’t know. But this film will convince you it was a special one.
This review was filed from the world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. It will be released on Netflix on January 29th.