I think that it’s best to remember that the price of life this year is a piece of plastic 7 inches wide with a hole in the middle” – says a surprise guest that had just returned from Ethiopia and had been invited by legendary producer Quincy Jones. This line was delivered as part of his pep talk to the uppermost echelon of American Music royalty (including global icons such as Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, and Billy Joel) as they all inhabited a small studio space at A&M studios (Los Angeles) to create history in pursuit of a gut-wrenching cause that constantly reminded them of both the privilege and platform that they enjoyed. These artists were united in their belief that the combined power of their respective platforms could be a potent catalyst for dramatic change in Ethiopia (more specifically, to address the famine in Ethiopia) in 1985. Their British counterparts had already risen to the occasion with their charity hit single “Do they know it’s Christmas” (written by Bob Geldof of The Boomtown Rats and Midge Ure of Ultravox) by Band-Aid (featuring lead vocals by Paul Young, Boy George, Bono of U2, George Michael, and Simon Lebon of Duran Duran). The American artists in that room had a template to work from. They just needed to emulate it. As a child, I remember being awestruck as I watched the music video of some of the biggest artists of the 1980s from different musical heritages flow in and out of their microphone stand areas to deliver stellar solo vocals (Journey lead singer Steve Perry’s being one of the most stunning and memorable) on the charity hit single “We are the world”. At the time, little did I realize that “We are the world” was a painstaking exercise in logistics management, extreme secrecy, ego management, cross-genre musical camaraderie and reverence, and meeting an aggressive deadline. The Netflix documentary “The Greatest Night In Pop” is an exhilarating chronicle of this exercise.

The primary narrative of the movie is driven by one of the movie producers and co-writers of “We are the world” Lionel Richie from the room in which the song was recorded. The movie captures each defining milestone right from the genesis of the idea of “We are the world” to the finished product and its monumental impact. Noteworthy aspects of the story include:

– The selection of the precise night/date of the recording (which coincided with one of the music industry’s biggest nights of the year).

– The selection AND exclusion of musicians (the two most noteworthy exclusions were those of Prince and Madonna) that would be featured on the song.

– The sequence of vocalists (with solo lead vocals) driven largely by an emphasis on contrasting vocal aesthetics.

– A shared heritage as part of the Motown Records family of the song’s two co-writers blossoming into creative chemistry despite the childlike idiosyncrasies of one of the two. In a different context, these idiosyncrasies became problematic when Michael Jackson attempted to collaborate with British- Indian icon Freddie Mercury.

– The completion of the song demo only days before the day of the scheduled recording of the song.

– The internalizing of the message at the door of the recording room. The message said “check your ego at the door”. The moment most emblematic of this involves one of the blind artists (yes, there were two of them!) using his gift for mimicry to guide Bob Dylan with his vocal delivery as he struggled a little (initially) with his solo vocal section. This is followed by a heartwarming moment in which producer Quincy Jones gives Bob Dylan a hug and says “you did great!” in response to the iconic Bob Dylan’s self-doubt as he asked “was I OK?”.

– Quincy Jones’s role as producer, ego manager, and group psychiatrist (a term used by Huey Lewis as he expressed admiration for the weight of the responsibility that Jones took on the night of the recording of the song). Quincy Jones also displays an exemplary trait of shining a spotlight on the originators of great ideas. He also elevates the relatively unsung musical stalwarts from across the pond. Another noteworthy example of this propensity in a context unrelated to “We are the world” is the recruitment of Rod Temperton (keyboard player and main songwriter from the 1970s British funk band Heatwave) as one of the key songwriters for the landmark Michael Jackson albums “Off the wall” and “Thriller”. Songs from these albums for which Rod Temperton was the sole songwriter include “Off the wall”, “Thriller“, and “Rock With You”.

The movie also features fantastic excerpts from current interviews with Bruce Springsteen, Kenny Loggins, Huey Lewis (his presence, in particular, adds a lot to the movie), Cyndi Lauper, Sheila E, engineer-turned-producer Humberto Gatica (producer of the fantastic and criminally underrated debut solo album “Raindance” by Clark Datchler of Johnny Hates Jazz) and videographer Ken Woo. These inputs act as the exquisite strands of fabric woven together to create the beautiful tapestry that is this movie.

The movie is bound to trigger both feelings of awe and sadness (I will confess I had tears in my eyes as Lionel Richie delivers the closing lines of the movie). In addition to the obvious reasons for awe, what is particularly striking is that the artists on “We are the world” have left enduring legacies that have stood the test of time. The ones that are still alive continue to play to sold-out performance venues across the globe while having their music cross over to younger generations. The song’s co-writer and first chorus singer Michael Jackson‘s premature demise looms large in the movie and is undoubtedly one of the elements of sadness. The other element stems from a recognition that we do not have a pop music ecosystem or culture today that can create a modern version of “We are the world”. In an era of wildly disproportionate artist over-exposure (hello Taylor Swift and Beyoncé!) and perverse rewards and incentive systems, we (especially music curators and gatekeepers) have created a notion of the word “mainstream” that is incredibly narrow and cannot possibly encompass the number of artists or breadth of musical spectrum represented by the artists that pulled an all-nighter at A&M studios to record “We are the world”. Mortality is a fact of life and the artists in “The Greatest Night In Pop” (who are getting older – some key ones have passed away) represent a bygone era of pop music – one that stands a very low chance of being recreated for today or for the future. This is the third music documentary from Netflix that we have reviewed. Maybe that’s because these movies don’t just represent music. They represent historical artistic milestones for pop culture – defining events that enjoyed global appeal. Unless music consumers recognize the problems of today’s music industry and model consumer behavior that truly helps rebuild the music industry (and its ability to be a cross-cultural and cross-generational connective tissue for community), we are unlikely to create historical moments that film makers will want to make documentaries about 40 years from now.

It goes without saying that “The Greatest Night In Pop” is a must-watch and I truly envy folks that have not watched it for the unique blend of surprise and exhilaration that they are undoubtedly going to experience for the first time as they watch this. Here (below) is the trailer for the Netflix movie:

STAR RATING: 5 out of 5 stars


Broadcasting Worldwide

In case you did not pick up on this earlier, the blog you are reading is affiliated with Radio Creme Brulee – an online radio station that features an eclectic mix of current pop and rock music from both sides of the Atlantic alongside hits, forgotten gems, and rarities from the last three decades. Alongside newer artists, we also play plenty of newer music by bands that rose to prominence in the 80s,90s, and the 00s. Noteworthy examples include Simply Red, Wet Wet Wet, Coldplay, Kylie Minogue, Dubstar, Kings Of Convenience, Tears For Fears, Go West, Duran Duran, Belinda Carlisle, Camouflage, Spandau Ballet, INXS, Depeche Mode, Suede, The Corrs, Jamiroquai, Keane, Johnny Hates Jazz, Simple Minds, and Culture Club.

Give us a spin when you get a chance.
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