"Paul Levinson's It's Real Life is a page-turning exploration into that multiverse known as rock and roll. But it is much more than a marvelous adventure narrated by a master storyteller...it is also an exquisite meditation on the very nature of alternate history." -- Jack Dann, The Fiction Writer's Guide to Alternate History

Sunday, February 4, 2024

The Greatest Night in Pop: The Making of 'We Are the World'

There's almost nothing as satisfying on the screen as seeing a documentary that shows you how something else you saw and on the screen and loved was put together.  The Greatest Night in Pop does that with the 1985 video and recording, "We Are the World".  In part because our family was just getting started, in part because we cared about feeding people in need of food, in part because we were fans of so many of the artists who made that music, the video has been among my wife's and my favorites since the day we first saw it in March 1985.  It still brings tears to our eyes.  As did The Greatest Night in Pop documentary, many times.

As we were watching it on Netflix the other night, I realized what an important kind of new video and recording the 1985 performance brought into being.  Not a concert of great artists, but a single song performed by great artists.  The performance of George Harrison's "As My Guitar Gently Weeps" in the 2004 Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductions with Tom Petty, Stevie Winwood, and Prince (who delivers the best guitar playing I've ever seen) is even better than the Beatles' original recording, and owes a debt of gratitude to the way "We Are the World" brought together more than two score of artists nearly two decades earlier to make such eternal music.

Prince didn't make it to that recording, though he was very much desired, and The Greatest Night in Pop tells us at least a part of that story.  It also shows how Dylan, not really getting how he fit in the recording, sung his part perfectly after Stevie Wonder did a good mimic of Dylan singing like Dylan had in his heyday in the 1960s.  Cyndi Lauper, understandably nervous in the company of such greats, belts out a great line and ends with a "yeah, yeah, yeah".  She wonders if that was ok and is assured by Quincy Jones that it was just right.  The key of the song was of course right for some of the singers but not for everyone.  Bruce Springsteen, coming to the recording session with a hoarse voice just after a tour, sounds like he has "broken glass" in his throat, as someone remarks.  But it's just right for the subject of the recording.  Michael Jackson, who co-wrote the song with Lionel Richie, wants to add a "sha-la-la" to the chorus.  Smokey Robinson tells us in current time, when the documentary was recorded, how he had lots of experience working with Michael Jackson at Motown, and we see him walk up to Jackson in the "We Are the World" recording studio and talk him out of the "sha-la-la".  Diana Ross says how much she loved Daryl Hall's singing.  Who knew?

The Greatest Night in Pop is a treasure-trove of such nuggets of musical history.  I expect my wife and I will be watching it a lot more than once.

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