Nostalgia for an era
Lasting 90 minutes, The Greatest Night in Pop takes us back to 1985, more precisely to the night of January 25 to 26, when around forty American superstars, including Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Huey Lewis, Smokey Robinson, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon and Billy Joel joined forces to record We Are The World, a ballad aimed at raising money to fight against famine in Africa. Rich in never-before-seen images taken in the studio, the documentary directed by Bao Nguyen (Be Water, Live from New York!) is full of juicy moments (Bob Dylan who is really, really not in his right mind), touching (the artists exchange their autographs like groupies), uncomfortable (the singer Al Jarreau, visibly drunk, who constantly forgets his words ), daunting (Michael Jackson lost his snake) and stressful (a race against time to finish on time).
In an interview, Danick Trottier, professor of musicology at the University of Quebec in Montreal, talks about a “well-scripted” film tailor-made to tickle the nostalgic fiber of the public. “We revisit the second half of the 20th century a lote century. We did it a lot around the big events of the 1960s and 1970s, and in recent years, we have become very interested in the 1980s.”
“Leave your ego in the locker room”
The biggest names in the American music industry, with their self-esteem, their pride, their way of doing things… locked up for hours in the same place? The risks of nuclear catastrophe (rivalries, personality conflicts) were high. “Some Quebec stars are difficult to manage, so imagine in the United States, when you reach this level,” remarks host Mike Gauthier, reached by telephone.
The documentary shows the efforts made by Quincy Jones (director of the song) and Lionel Richie (co-author with Michael Jackson) to avoid slippage. The following memo was also posted at the entrance to the studio: “Check Your Ego at the Door. » (“Leave your ego in the locker room.”) The tandem navigated this unstable sea of sensitivities throughout the evening.
“The film highlights Lionel Richie well,” says musicologist Danick Trottier. We put it aside a bit afterwards (We Are The World). He was perceived as cheesy, as a charming singer… But in 1984 and 1985, he provided leadership in pop music. We see his strength, his ancestry, his unifying side. »
Get out the popcorn!
We Are The World having captured the imagination of several generations of music lovers, The Greatest Night in Pop will undoubtedly attract a large audience. Even anecdotally, the documentary entertains. Among the best popcorn clips is the one where Stevie Wonder seems to infuriate everyone when he suggests singing the chorus in Swahili, a popular language in Africa.
We also learn that Cyndi Lauper almost canceled at the last moment because her boyfriend at the time, who had heard the mock-up of the song, thought it was going to flop. “When you see the film, you understand why some stars lasted, and others, a little less,” observes Mike Gauthier. When you see Bruce Springsteen’s attitude, his professionalism, you understand why he’s still riding today. His artistic quest is pure and hard. »
Exhausted after a long tour, Springsteen recorded his part around 6 a.m. Even though he seemed to have swallowed pieces of glass, the Boss gave it his all. “My voice wasn’t great, but I did my best,” he is heard saying.
Forty years later, his vocal performance remains one of the strengths of the title.
Where were Prince and Madonna?
The documentary sheds light on one of the biggest musical mysteries of the 1980s: why were Prince and Madonna absent? With Michael Jackson, however, they reigned over the industry.
Prince received an invitation. The producers wanted them to participate in the recording so much that they wanted to attract him by recruiting his favorite percussionist, Sheila E. The singer’s demands, however, were too great.
As for the Material Girl, we understand that in the end, she was never invited to the meeting. Powerful producer Ken Kragen preferred to retain the services of Cyndi Lauper. Irony of fate: which song dethroned We Are The World at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the United States? Crazy For Youby Madonna.
“The organizers chose to make a very mainstream compromise between black artists and white artists,” comments Danick Trottier. It could have been even more unifying, with Latino artists, for example. Several artists popular with young people were also absent: not only Madonna, but Run-DMC, Twisted Sisters, Van Halen… We could have represented other musical genres: jazz, new wave…”
An Americanocentric vision
The Greatest Night in Pop mentions it in the opening: We Are The World arrived after Do They Know it’s Christmas, this charitable Christmas song initiated by Bob Geldof in the United Kingdom. Released in November 1984, the piece brought together big names like Phil Collins, U2, Boy George, Sting and Duran Duran.
For Professor Danick Trottier, the film glosses over this important aspect. “We are presenting a very American-centric narrative. It’s navel-gazing, believes the musicologist. Charity songs were not born with We Are The World. But when you watch the documentary, you get the impression that it’s the founding event, when in reality, it started with rock from the 1960s, and all those concerts around Bangladesh with UNICEF at the beginning from the 1970s, worn by George Harrison. »
Bob Geldof appears briefly in The Greatest Night in Pop. Archive footage shows the Irish songwriter and activist speaking to the slightly dissipated stars, to remind them of the critical situation in Ethiopia, and the importance of the event.
According to Mike Gauthier, his intervention was essential. “It’s lucky he spoke, because I feel like a good gang had forgotten why they were together, even though they knew it was for a good cause.” »
The documentary The Greatest Night in Pop East offered on Netflix in French or original English version with French subtitles.