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'The Greatest Night in Pop' reveals how music's stars came together to make history


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Amna Nawaz: In 1985, the biggest American pop stars all gathered in one Los Angeles studio for one night only to record one song that raised tens of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid for Africa.

MAN: One, two.


Amna Nawaz: The story of how the legendary charity single "We Are the World" came to be, including some never-before-seen footage of the recording session itself, is the subject of a new document called "The Greatest Night in Pop.

The documentary is streaming on Netflix now. And I recently spoke with its director, Bao Nguyen, our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Bao, welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks so much for joining us.

Bao Nguyen, Director, "The Greatest Night in Pop": Great. It's great to be back here, Amna.

Amna Nawaz: So what made you want to tell this story in the first place?

Bao Nguyen: I mean, it happened in a weird way.

I was only 2 years old when the song came out, and it was a song that I didn't understand the global resonance of the song, obviously, when I was 2 years old. But my parents, who are Vietnamese refugees, they spoke very little English when they came over. But, for some reason, they had Lionel Richie records. They had Kenny Rogers records.

So I remember the song always playing in the background of my house. And, in a way, it was a bridge to my American side and my parents' sort of immigrant side. And so, yes, again, the song had a lot of resonance.

But the film was conceived during the middle of the pandemic. And I was watching a lot of things from the '80s and the '90s. So I wanted to make something that was kind of familiar to people. We didn't know what we were going to come out of after the pandemic.

And so creating a film that was really rooted in something that was kind of like a warm blanket was important to me. So my producer, Julia Nottingham, approached me with this idea of the story of "We Are the World."

And I just found the story itself to be really fascinating.

Amna Nawaz: The inspiration for the song itself, how that came to be, that isn't really well-known. You tell this story in the film, but who first had the idea to record the song? And how did that idea come up?

Bao Nguyen: So it started with Harry Belafonte, who had seen what the British artists had done with Band Aid and also was watching a lot of these documentaries about what was going on in the famine in Africa at the time.

And I think we're kind of used to those images, sadly, nowadays. But in the '80s, when it happened, it was a shock to everyone who saw those images. And Harry Belafonte, he says it in the film, that he was sort of like seeing white artists saving people in Africa, but he wasn't seeing Black artists save the people in Africa.

And so he started to assemble this team of Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, through Lionel's manager, Ken Kragen. And that's how it all got started.

Amna Nawaz: And this recording includes, it's fair to say, the biggest names in music of the time, Michael Jackson, as you mentioned, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner.

It is incredible to see in your film all of these superstars in this studio with no handlers and no press people. They're just hanging out alone with each other. There's one moment actually that reveals some of those artists were actually starstruck themselves. Take a listen.

Man: Diana walks up to Daryl Hall with her music in her hands and says: "Daryl, I'm your biggest fan. Would you sign my music for me?"

And we all looked around and said, holy moly.

Amna Nawaz: Bao, in reviewing all of this behind-the-scenes footage, what stood out to you about seeing all these superstars in this environment?

Bao Nguyen: Yes, well, as you said, these are the icons of icons, of not just that generation, but the generation before and the generation after in many ways.

And to see them really nervous around each other, excited and sort of fanboying and fangirling around each other, but also really vulnerable, again, these are the greatest musical minds and artists of the time.

And to see them just sort of not performing at their best levels was really interesting. But, also, I found it really endearing how all the artists around them would help each other. There's a really beautiful scene with Bob Dylan and Stevie Wonder that's one of my favorite scenes, where Stevie Wonder helps Bob by mimicking his style.

And it's a really poignant scene that I think really sticks out in my mind.

Amna Nawaz: You also got many of these artists to talk to you today, all these years later, to reflect back on that time, Lionel Richie and Bruce Springsteen and Cyndi Lauper.

How hard was it to convince them to talk about this?

Bao Nguyen: I mean, it was pretty difficult.

It was sort of a bit of life imitating art, because it took Lionel to make these phone calls. And once Lionel was lined up to help produce this project, everyone started to agree to be part of it. And one of the great things that we tried to do in the film was to shoot the interviews at the actual studio where it was recorded.

So, then this event happened almost 40 years ago. And so when people walked back into that room, a lot of their memories started flooding back.

Amna Nawaz: There's this wonderful memory from Huey Lewis reflecting back on that moment and talking about just how nervous he was to be singing in front of all these other superstars. Take a listen.

Huey Lewis, Musician: From that moment on, I was nervous out of my brain.

Amna Nawaz: Bao, there are tons of moments like this throughout the film. Were there moments from the behind-the-scenes footage you didn't include that you wanted to?

Bao Nguyen: I mean, I think film is a liminal art. So there's definitely, -- I wish we could have included all the stories. We had a scene like with more of the recording session artists.

We had just more of the actual recording itself with the stars. But I think, for us, it was important to kind of find the heart of the story. And I think we did so with this film. And it is -- the film has been out for a couple of weeks now on Netflix. And we have just been getting some really great messages of how nostalgic the film is, but also how heartfelt it is.

Amna Nawaz: It was almost 40 years ago, as you point out. I just wonder how you reflect on what it took to bring that together, for that moment to happen, and whether you think something like that could ever happen today.

Bao Nguyen: I mean, looking back at it now, it was such a unique moment, I think, in pop culture, global pop culture, because it really sort of -- everyone was focused on this moment.

Like, almost every radio station in the world played it all at the same time. I don't know if you can really do that today. But I think it was also the feat of -- it was such a surprising moment. It came out of nowhere.

I, think, today, there are -- there's ways to leak things. Social media makes things more apparent. I think it's really unique. But I do hope the film is a way to inspire a generation of artists to realize, like, within their own power, within their own talents, that they can make a difference.

Amna Nawaz: The film is "The Greatest Night in Pop." It's streaming now on Netflix. The director is Bao Nguyen.

Bao, it's always good to see you. Thank you so much.

Bao Nguyen: Thank you, Amna.

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