‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ Director on How to Make a Movie About a Song You Think Is Corny

Over the course of an all-night recording session in January 1985, almost four dozen singers and musicians cut the charity single “We Are the World,” which went on to sell 20 million copies and raise more than $80 million for humanitarian aid. “Be Water” director Bao Nguyen rounded up many of the principals, from Lionel Richie (who wrote the song with Michael Jackson) to Bruce Springsteen to talk about what it was like.

You’re too young to have remembered “We Are the World” when it came out. What was your experience with the song?
I was about 2 years old when the song came out. But my parents had Lionel Richie records, they had Kenny Rogers records, they had the “We Are the World” record. So I remember that song permeating my childhood in many ways. And in the middle of the pandemic, my producer Julia Nottingham and I were trying to find another film that would be mostly archival. She said, “Do you know the song ‘We Are the World?’”

Of course I knew the song, but she sent me some books and articles, and when I found out what the actual story was, I was really intrigued. I read how it all happened in one night and came together through a series of phone calls by influential people like Lionel Richie, Ken Kragen and Harry Belafonte. To me, it felt like a heist film, it felt like a cliffhanger, it felt like a ticking-time-bomb sort of story that could be much more engaging than the run-of-the-mill music documentary.

But at the same time, given that I was only 2 when the song came out, I was constantly interrogating whether or not I was the right person to tell the story. And it wasn’t until I happened to be visiting family in Vietnam, and I got into the taxi and the 70-year-old driver, who was Vietnamese and speaks no English, he put in a mix CD and the first song that plays is “We Are The World.” (Laughs) I just knew there was serendipity involved, and it just showed the impact of the song through generations and across borders and language. That sort of sealed the deal for me.

Lionel Richie - The Greatest Night in Pop
Lionel Richie in “The Greatest Night in Pop” (Netflix)

Was it tricky to find a balance between celebrating the song and being honest about things like Sheila E. (who says she was offered a spot on the song only in hopes that she’d bring Prince)?
Yeah, for sure. I always wanted to tell an honest story. We didn’t intend the film to necessarily be a celebration, but when we talked to the people involved in the making of the song, there was a joyous sense of accomplishment and achievement. But there was a bit of politics involved — and to Lionel’s credit, he did not deny Sheila E.’s story at all.

The film points out that it all started with Lionel and Ken Kragen and everybody getting on the phone and trying to line up people like Bruce Springsteen to participate. And I imagine you went through something similar, trying to get the same people to come on board and talk to you about it for the movie.
Yeah, it very much felt like art imitating life. Because without Lionel’s participation and his involvement, I don’t think we would’ve been able to make the same film. He was the one who kind of wrangled everyone for the song, and he also was the wrangler in many ways for this film. Once he got involved, he can just pick up the phone and call Bruce, call Dionne Warwick, Huey Lewis. It did make it a lot easier for us.

For all the attention it got and the money it raised, the song itself struck a lot of people at the time as being very generic and sentimental. But the documentary is entertaining even to people who don’t like the song.
I was one who thought the song was honestly quite corny. (Laughs) And I questioned whether or not I’d be the right person to tell the story, ’cause I wasn’t a huge fan of the song in the beginning. I think that’s one of the things I love to do as a filmmaker. The storyteller has to find the purpose in something that maybe at first I didn’t like. But over time, understanding the story, the reason and the process helps you create meaning and helps you empathize with different situations and different experiences.

A version of this story first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine. Read more from that issue here.

Feud: Capote vs. The Swans cover
Feud: Capote vs. The Swans cover

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