Dan Aykroyd, Billy Joel, Harry Belafonte, Quincy Jones, Lindsey Buckingham, Cyndi Lauper, Kim Carnes, Huey Lewis, Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins, Mario Cipollina, Bette Midler, Johnny Colla, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, John Oates, Sheila E., Jeffrey Osborne, Bob Geldof, Steve Perry, Bill Gibson, Anita Pointer, Daryl Hall, Ruth Pointer, Chris Hayes, Lionel Richie, Sean Hopper, Smokey Robinson, James Ingram, Kenny Rogers, Jackie Jackson, Diana Ross, La Toya Jackson, Paul Simon, Marlon Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Randy Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Tito Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Al Jarreau pose in front of a USA Africa banner.

The Greatest Night in Pop

Bao Nguyen’s documentary chronicles the making of the multigenerational earworm “We Are the World,” which raised millions for famine and poverty relief in the U.S. and Africa.

22 May 20248 min read

When filmmaker Bao Nguyen was casting about for a follow-up project to his acclaimed Bruce Lee documentary Be Water, his producing partner Julia Nottingham suggested he might consider chronicling the making of 1985’s hit single, “We Are the World.” Written by Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, the song was intended to raise money to help relieve famine in Africa, and 43 of the world’s biggest musical stars — including Bob Dylan, Diana Ross, Willie Nelson, Huey Lewis, Cyndi Lauper, Stevie Wonder, and Kenny Rogers — gathered to record the track during one marathon session at Los Angeles’s A&M Studios.

Nguyen was only a toddler when “We Are the World” was released, but he remembered the song clearly. “I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee household and thinking back, it was surprising how many Lionel Richie records my parents had,” he says. “Some things become ingrained in your mind. ‘We Are the World’ became a part of that.”

Indeed, few songs have become woven into the fabric of the larger cultural consciousness in the same fashion as “We Are the World,” which, in the years since its release, has become one of the most successful philanthropic endeavors ever undertaken. Upon its initial release, the song raised $10.8 million from record sales (adjusting for inflation, that would be about 31 million dollars today) and won four Grammy Awards for Song of the Year; Record of the Year; Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal; and Best Music Video, Short Form. Today, the effort has raised more than 200 million dollars (adjusted for inflation) to help alleviate poverty in Africa and the United States. 

Huey Lewis, Quincy Jones, Thomas Bähler, and Michael Jackson sing off of some sheet music.

Huey Lewis, Quincy Jones, Thomas Bähler, and Michael Jackson

Featuring never-before-seen footage, Nguyen’s film charts how the now-iconic song came together, often through firsthand accounts with those involved at every level — including camera crew, engineers, assistants, and musicians like Richie, who served as an executive producer and features prominently in the film. Fitting, given that Richie was a pivotal player in the project from its inception.

As Richie recounts in The Greatest Night in Pop, the Grammy Award-winning Commodores front man, who went on to great success as a solo artist, received a call from singer, actor, and activist Harry Belafonte, who felt strongly that American musicians should get involved in the effort to end famine in Ethiopia. At that time, U.K. musicians, led by Irish performer Bob Geldof, had just come together to record “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” which hit number one on the U.K. singles chart, with proceeds also going to famine relief. Richie agreed, and he recruited super-producer Quincy Jones for the project. As someone venerated by members of the music industry, Jones brought with him both his expertise and his deep network of friends and colleagues.

Notes Nguyen: “You have Quincy Jones on production. You have [legendary entertainment manager] Ken Kragen and company wrangling all this amazing talent. You have some of the most iconic musical artists of the time writing the song. If there was a team to make this song and make it happen, it was them. But at the same time, they had to execute it all in the span of a very short period.”

Lionel Richie asks Cyndi Lauper for her autograph.

Lionel Richie and Cyndi Lauper

Nguyen wisely used the time crunch as a kind of ticking clock that gives The Greatest Night in Pop a narrative throughline and a rising sense of tension. The recording session was set for January 28, 1985, as many of the performers were already scheduled to be in Los Angeles for the American Music Awards, which was taking place the same night — and which Richie was hosting. Immediately after, he and his fellow recording artists arrived at the studio, where, under the moniker United Support of Artists for Africa, they would record “We Are the World.”

“We were all aware of each other, but in a lot of cases, we were meeting for the first time,” Richie says. “To bring that much star power to one room, to bring that much ego to one room, and on top of that, hoping that we all get along . . . it was [like] a big corporate meeting where you sit around and try to get used to each other, but everybody had power. From one in the morning until about seven in the morning, we got ‘We Are the World’ done.”

The film captures the hurdles and escalating pressures that emerged as the night unfolded. At one point, Jones and his colleagues realize that Prince — who had never agreed to participate — is not going to turn up, so they re-assign the solo they’d planned for him to Huey Lewis. “Those are pretty big shoes to fill,” Lewis says in the documentary. “It was just one line, but my legs were literally shaking.”

Willie Nelson, Quincy Jones, and Bruce Springsteen compare notes.

Willie Nelson, Quincy Jones, and Bruce Springsteen

During the evening, troubadour Bob Dylan found himself wrestling with singing something so radically different from his own style of music. When called to the microphone to ad-lib over the chorus, Dylan struggled to muster the right notes — until Stevie Wonder sat down at the piano and began riffing, imitating Dylan’s signature vocal stylings. It gave the legendary folk singer the direction he needed. “One of my favorite scenes is seeing Stevie Wonder help Bob Dylan out,” Nguyen says.

By the time the song was completed, Diana Ross was particularly moved. As the exhausted participants trickled out of the studio, Tom Bähler, who created the “We Are the World” vocal arrangement, noticed that Diana Ross had begun to cry. “Quincy said, ‘Diana, are you O.K.?’ and she’s like, ‘I don’t want this to be over,’” he recalls in the documentary. “It was the sweetest thing I think I’ve ever heard.” Says Richie: “By seven o’clock in the morning, we became a family. You’d have thought we’d been together for the last hundred years.”

Decades on, Richie still feels a powerful connection to that night he spent with so many of his artistic contemporaries all working toward a shared goal — it’s one of the chief reasons he chose to executive-produce The Greatest Night in Pop. The musician stresses the importance of understanding all that went into creating this once-in-a-lifetime moment. “It’s a part of my D.N.A. now,” Richie says. “It’s a part of my family history. Years later, my grandkids still ask me to sing it. People ask me, ‘Hey Lionel, are you thinking about writing another song like ‘We Are the World?’ I tell them to just play ‘We Are the World’ again. It’ll hold up.”

“Musical artists and culture are bridges to generations,” Nguyen adds of the song’s remarkable staying power. “My parents were the ones who introduced me to Lionel Richie, and that’s how I connected with them. The films we watch today can serve as another way to create that bridge between generations. I hope this film can do that.”