A documentary that introduces the 1985 global charity hit “We Are the World” in a new light is now streaming on Netflix, diving deep into the iconic song’s history and the remarkable talents in and behind the scenes who gave it life.
“The Greatest Night in Pop,” directed by Bao Nguyen, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 19. NextShark spoke with the acclaimed Vietnamese American filmmaker about the challenges he and its production team — which included Lionel Richie, who co-wrote and co-performed the top-selling single — faced while putting pieces of the project together.
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Old song, new story
Released on March 7, 1985, “We Are the World” is a charity single produced to benefit Ethiopia amid a famine that killed up to 1.2 million people. Written by Richie and Michael Jackson, produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian, and released by Columbia Records, the song became the fastest-selling U.S. pop single in history, won multiple Grammys and raised millions to help the starving African country.
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More than 40 musicians formed the supergroup USA for Africa to record the song on the night of Jan. 28, 1985. Nguyen, whose works have appeared on HBO, the New York Times, NBC, PBS and Vice, sought to deliver a fresh form of nostalgia in “The Greatest Night.”
“I was acutely aware of its monumental legacy, but I wanted to peel back the layers, find a new angle,” the Maryland-born creative tells NextShark. “It struck me as a heist film, an ensemble cast with a ticking clock and I did a lot of work with our editor at first, Nic Zimmermann, to strike that tone. This wasn’t just about nostalgia; it was about rediscovery, finding the heartbeat of that night.”
Nguyen says their work involved interspersing present-day reflections with archival frenzy to find a balance between the immediacy of the moment and the weight of its legacy.
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“It’s about capturing that spontaneity, the unscripted vulnerabilities of icons, and presenting it in a light that feels both familiar and utterly new,” Nguyen says.
“The Greatest Night” showcases unpublished behind-the-scenes from the song’s planning to its recording. Nguyen admits to not fully grasping the “mountain” of unseen footage they had to climb at the beginning, but they eventually managed to find help.
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“It was like uncovering a time capsule, except some of it was nearly disintegrated. The tapes, some 40 years old, were a puzzle. We had tapes without sound, and some, frankly, were just lost to time. But then, magic happened,” Nguyen recalls. “We found this goldmine of audio from David Breskin who was covering the whole process for Life Magazine, and it was like finding the missing piece. Under the meticulous work of our editor Nic Zimmermann and assistant editor Ric Crossley, syncing this with the silent footage was like composing a new piece of music."
He adds, "It brought the studio to life in a way no one’s ever seen. It was more than just a technical challenge; it was a narrative one, trying to weave these fragments into a story that felt immediate, like you were there that night, watching history unfold.”
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Call to the stars
“The Greatest Night” features interviews with artists whose voices graced the multi-platinum single, including Richie, Cyndi Lauper and Bruce Springsteen. Nguyen credits producers Julia Nottingham, George Hencken and story producer Lisa Stevens for setting those up.
“It started with a leap of faith and a cold call that turned into an unexpected alliance with AMA producer Larry Klein. Larry's introduction was pivotal, transforming skepticism into trust and once we got Lionel onboard, it was much easier,” Nguyen says. “These interviews weren’t just about recounting events; they were about capturing reflections, the passage of time etched in their voices and the indelible mark that night left on their lives.”
With dozens of diverse musicians involved in the song, Nguyen had to strike a balance in highlighting individual stories and the collaborative spirit that defined the recording session. He made sure to include others who contributed behind the curtains, including the lone Asian American staff who held one of the cameras.
“I was particularly adamant about ensuring we had voices from all walks of life, including finding that singular Asian American perspective. Ken Woo, a young cameraman at the time, became one of my favorite subjects in the film,” Nguyen recalls. “His story added a vital layer, illustrating how this wasn’t just a gathering of the world’s musical elite but a concerted effort by a wide-ranging group of individuals, each contributing to the magic of that night. This duality of the singular moments against the backdrop of unity, and the inclusion of often-unheard perspectives like Ken’s, was key in underscoring the shared mission that brought them together.”
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The big picture
“The Greatest Night” quickly found success on Netflix after its release on Jan. 29. The feature documentary remains in the streaming platform’s top 10 films as of press time.
When asked about surprises the movie has for audiences, Nguyen refers to its approach in showcasing the unknown.
“I believe the surprises lie in the nuances, the unseen moments and the unheard conversations,” he tells NextShark. “Discovering the depth of collaboration, the tensions and triumphs, offers a new understanding of ‘We Are the World.’ The documentary peels back the layers of an iconic event, revealing the humanity behind the harmony. It’s these unexpected glimpses, the vulnerabilities of legends, that I think will resonate most.”
“The Greatest Night” reinforces the song’s message of collaboration, particularly in trying times. As director, Nguyen says the convergence of paths and unexpected connections have left him the deepest impression.
“This project was a testament to the power of curiosity and the unforeseen beauty of collaboration. It’s a reminder of the song's enduring legacy, not just as a cultural milestone but as a beacon of collective hope and humanity. As we navigate a world that feels increasingly fragmented, the message of ‘We Are the World’ and the spirit of that night stand as a poignant reminder of what we can achieve together.”
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