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"The Greatest Night In Pop" Review

Ah, the 1980s - Reagan, MTV, leg warmers and torn sweatshirts, Tom Cruise beginning his 40-years-and-counting run of movie stardom, Generation X coming of age unaware that in four decades they would have a holy mandate to destroy all surrounding generations. But it was also the advent of massive charity records and concerts like Live Aid and Farm Aid.

While there had been charity concerts like Concerts for the People of Kampuchea (to raise funds for Cambodians post-Vietnam War) and No Nukes (to frighten people away from safe, clean nuclear energy), late-1984 through summer 1985 was put into Feed The World overdrive by the tag-team of singles "Do They Know It's Christmas (Feed The World)" by Band Aid, put together by Boomtown Rats frontman Bob Geldof and Ultravox's Midge Ure, and "We Are The World" by USA For Africa, the recording of which is the subject of the brisk Netflix documentary The Greatest Night In Pop.

 Beginning with "Day-O" singer and activist Harry Belafonte taking note of Band-Aid and wondering why if white English people were trying to save black lives in Ethiopia, why weren't black artists trying to do the same, uber manager Ken Kragen tapped clients Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers to participate in the formless project. Rapidly, Michael Jackson - then the King of Pop in the wake of Thriller selling eleventy bazillion copies - and Thriller producer Quincy Jones were on board. Stevie Wonder was asked to co-write, but never returned their calls.

The logistics of gathering talent for the project were daunting until they realized that most of the people on their wish list would be in Los Angeles on January 28, 1985 for the American Music Awards which were coincidentally being hosted by Richie. If they could get the stars to head to a studio for an all-night session after the show, this could work. However, by having a hard deadline to record the song, Richie & Jackson were under the gun to actually write the song and only finished the rough draft (lyrics would be tweaked right up to the final session) a week before the date. The demo with guide vocals by the pair was recorded the next night and cassettes were FedExed to the vocalists in Jan. 25.

Mixing footage from the epic recording session with new interviews with Richie, Bruce Springsteen, Smokey Robinson, Sheila E., Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick, and Huey Lewis (who inherited the bridge line slated for Prince, who was a no show) along with various production personnel, a cameraman, the session engineer, The Greatest Night In Pop gives a look at how the musical sausage was made beyond what was shown in the music video.

The role of Quincy Jones as simultaneous producer, conductor, traffic cop, psychiatrist cannot be understated as issues arose like Wonder, feeling left out of the writing, almost derailed the show by wanting to insert lyrics in Swahili (which isn't even spoken by Ethiopians) which would've burned already limited time teaching the chorus new lines. (While the documentary makes a big deal about Waylon Jennings saying, "No good ol' boy ever sang Swahili," and walking out, he returned to the session, not that the filmmakers' desire to punch down at supposed redneck racism bothered to clarify.)

Richie's stamina also must be acknowledged because he'd arrived at the Shrine Auditorium to prepare hosting the AMAs at 8 am, hosted the telecast while performing twice during the show, then had to work over eight hours on "We Are The World." He doesn't say how long he slept after that day, but I'd be out for at least 12-16 hours if I'd run that hard. (The missus kept saying, "Cocaine is a helluva drug.")

Being a music production nerd who was alive when these records happened, I'd known about some details shown like Lauper's costume jewelry picking up on the sensitive microphones and Wonder having to teach Bob Dylan how to sing (he looks so lost the whole time) by imitating him to his face, but never seen the footage shown here. Totally new was how Al Jarreau was so drunk that he kept blowing his line which led the soloists at the end of the line to complain that all the starts and stops for earlier mistakes were depriving them of a chance to work into the material and a request that they run through the entire song for each take then go back and punch in the problematic phrases.

The Greatest Night In Pop is also an accidental time capsule of just how far we've come technologically because in 1985, cell phones were rare, there was no email, no Internet, no sending MP3s of demos - it was brute force analog life with cassette tapes sent by messenger or express mail, phone calls - they mention that Kragen would travel with a suitcase full of Rolodexes whose contents15 years later would fit in a Palm Pilot - and recording was done by extremely talented performers stepping up and delivering the goods when called upon without the safety nets of editing in ProTools (which first came out in 1991 and only recorded four tracks) or fixing with AutoTune (invented in 1997). The stress levels of the recording engineers and machine maintenance techs must've been sky high because any breakdown would be catastrophic.

 If there's a downside to The Greatest Night In Pop it will be that you will be earwormed by "We Are The World" for the foreseeable future after hearing it performed in bits for an hour over and over. Now where is the documentary about recording "Do They Know It's Christmas"?

Score: 8/10. Catch it on Netflix.


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