Bob Dylan was nervous. Stevie Wonder wanted a section in Swahili. Would Prince show up? The stories behind We Are the World are as fascinating as the song itself.

The single, featuring 46 of the biggest names in American music, was recorded in 1985 to raise money for famine relief in Africa. Co-produced by music industry legend Quincy Jones, the tune featured 21 principal singing voices and probably one of the most illustrious choruses ever.

The Netflix documentary The Greatest Night in Pop reveals the efforts than went into shepherding the singers into a studio in Hollywood and then bashing out the track between the night of January 28 and the morning of January 29. There was “just one night to get it right”, says the singer Lionel Richie, who was the song’s co-writer along with Michael Jackson and is also one of producers of the film.

Over 96 breezy minutes, Bao Nguyen’s documentary proves that such a rare celestial event is possible if the cause is right. The film also provides a riveting account of how music is made. Nguyen mixes archival footage with fresh interviews to show how musicians adhered to the message that was pasted on a studio wall: “Check your ego at the door.”


The idea of a music supergroup to raise funds for the famine that was devastating Africa at the time was inspired by an earlier project in the United Kingdom. In 1984, Band Aid, founded by Geldof, had recorded Do They Know It’s Christmas for famine relief.

Over in America, musician and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte began thinking of a similar effort. Belafonte roped in talent manager Ken Kragen, who sorted out one of the biggest challenges: how to coordinate the schedule of all those stars into one room at the same time.

The Greatest Night in Pop is crisp and simply told, moving smoothly from the song’s creation to its first recording and the final recording.

A short speech by Bob Geldof sets the mood. The film then reveals how various sections of the tune fell into place, the ironing out of obstacled major and minor, and the manner in which Quincey Jones gets the singers to relax when things got tense.

The film is rich with anecdotes. Lionel Richie, who is a great raconteur apart from being a brilliant singer, has hilarious stories to tell about writing the song in Michael Jackson’s home. Kenny Loggins recalls the “low hum of competition” that coursed through the celebrity-studded recording.

Bob Dylan, for instance, got so nervous with the number of people in the room that he sought the help of Stevie Wonder to cut his bit.

Sheila E, one of Prince’s collaborators in the 1980s, strikes the only discordant note in an otherwise laudatory film. She feels that she was used as bait and included in the supergroup only so that the producers could get Prince to show up. He didn’t, but so many others did.

We Are the World (1985).