Lionel Richie (Photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock for Sundance)
By Bailey Pennick
It’s three in the morning and everyone is tired. Working late is never fun, and it’s getting really hard to focus. Different people have conflicting ideas of how to finish the project, but it just has to get over the line before morning. Whose idea was it to get all these people together in this one room in the first place?
Oh, right, Lionel Richie’s.
Now 39 years after that fateful night, he’s here at Sundance to answer for the absolute brilliant chaos of the creation of “We Are the World.” And don’t worry, he is very aware of it. “Getting two artists together, that’s a nursery school,” Richie says. “But getting over 40 together? Well, that was babysitting at its finest!” The Eccles crowd bursts out laughing at the idea of getting everyone from Ray Charles, Paul Simon, and Harry Belafonte to Dionne Warwick, Cyndi Lauper, Paul Simon, (Dan Aykroyd?), Bruce Springsteen, and more in one room for a recording session as babysitting.
Bao Nguyen’s latest documentary, The Greatest Night in Pop, follows the ins and outs of creating the ’80s megahit, which continues to raise awareness and money for African famine relief to this day. While some of the absolutely priceless footage might stress out viewers, as the gang of icons start getting into the nitty-gritty of learning a brand-new song, deciding who gets solos, and recording it to Quincy Jones’ standards in the middle of the night, just know that it was something that comforted Nguyen.
“I was making this during the early days of the pandemic, when we were all just sitting at home not knowing what to do,” the director explains during the extended premiere conversation. “But I looked at [the footage] of all these artists who came together for the collective and I was inspired. I really needed that.”
The goodwill that pushed the recording process through also mirrored the production process, as Nguyen and his team tracked down all this footage and rights in the first place. Richie, who is also a producer on the film, was instrumental in that success. “We have been pitched on making this story into a documentary before, but the marriage wasn’t right,” he says with his signature grin.
With a new marriage in place with Nguyen, and a new generation that might not even know the track, The Greatest Night in Pop is a refreshingly candid look into how the industry has changed, how artists have changed, and the miracle of how this song actually came into being without anyone leaking it.
It’s hard to believe that the song got made, even for Richie, a man that was at the center of it all.
“I’m watching this 39 years later, and I still wasn’t sure we were going to make it!”
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