“I didn’t really know much about the making of the song,” admits The Greatest Night in Pop director Bao Nguyen of 1985’s star-studded Ethiopian famine relief hit “We Are the World.” “You just make these assumptions about how things are made because it just happens. But when you think now of 46 great artists getting together to make that, it would be really impossible for that to happen now.”
Whether or not the superstars of 2024 could or would come together like the hit makers of the Reagan Era did in America and the UK almost 40 years ago is debatable. What is a fact is that Nguyen’s latest documentary is debuting today at the Sundance Film Festival just a few days short of when U.S.A. for Africa recorded the Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson penned tune in a studio in Los Angeles. It is also a fact that, after a total of four Sundance screenings, the 96-minute Greatest Night in Pop film is launching on Netflix on January 29.
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A follow up to Bob Geldof and Band Aid’s chart topping “Do They Know It’s Christmas” single, “We Are the World” was a blockbuster when it was released on March 7, 1985. Produced by Quincy Jones and Michael Omartian during an all-night session with the likes of Richie, Thriller star Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Diana Ross, Cyndi Lauper, Kenny Rogers, Smokey Robinson, Waylon Jennings (for a while), Journey’s Steve Perry, Huey Lewis, Sheila E, Willie Nelson, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Tina Turner, many more, and legend among legends Ray Charles, the song hit #1, raised over $60 million, and was the closer at that summer Live Aid concert in Philadelphia.
For Nguyen, who’s Bruce Lee documentary Be Water was one of the defining films of Sundance 2020, making a film of that effort and that night presented an array of challenges almost as long as the number of superstars who participated in the original song. Going deep into footage of the recording and the time, plus interviews with Richie, Lauper, Springsteen, Robinson and Lewis, a new version of what was at stake and the magnitude of the endeavor in 1985 emerges.
Back in Park City for today’s 9:15 pm MT premiere at the Eccles Theatre, Nguyen spoke with me about the making of The Greatest Night in Pop, a harsh purple secret of the recording session, and the importance of being honest.
DEADLINE: This film is surely a case of we think we know the story of We Are the World, but there’s a whole other story to be told. To that, as the director of The Greatest Night in Pop, what surprised you making this film?
BAO NGUYEN: I was only about two years old, when the song came out. So, I don’t remember it when it came out. My parents were refugees from Vietnam. They didn’t speak a lick of English, but they had Kenny Rogers records. They had Lionel Richie records. And I just recall them always playing those records all the time when I was young.
“We Are the World” was one of those records and, and that was sort of my entry point into the song.
I didn’t really know much about the making of the song. You just make these assumptions about how things are made because it just happens. But when you think now of 46 great artists getting together to make that, it would be really impossible for that to happen now. Obviously, people are going to do things remotely, or what have you, but to get everyone in the room in one night. That was such an incredible story to me.
DEADLINE: How did it all come together then in the 21st century?
NGUYEN: So, my producer Julia Nottingham, who produced Be Water as well, she came to me with the story of the making the song, which I again I had little knowledge of. I might have seen it like as a headline or something like that during the 20th anniversary or 25th anniversary, but I never really clicked and like looked through the timeline.
So, I went through the night and just saw like how crazy it was.
All the pressure and all these little moments when they were making this one song, I was like, this is extraordinary. I would say especially being able to access the archival footage, and watching all this unseen footage. Which is why we put most of it in the film, in terms of the vulnerability and how a lot of these artists were nervous, really nervous.
DEADLINE: That struck me watching the documentary, Bob Dylan really feeling under pressure, and many others. It was like they left their egos at the door as requested, but anxiety and fear permeated …
NGUYEN: Exactly! You just assume these icons are just the coolest people in the room of any room they walk into. But when you know you’re going into the room and Ray Charles is walking in the room. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, the list can go on, that changes things, it humanizes everyone.
As Lionel says in the film, “it was like the first day of kindergarten.” Remnants of that line has been repeated by many different people about that night. So, as a director, I’m always looking how to humanize people who we think are almost untouchable – like Bruce Lee in Be Water.
DEADLINE: How do you mean?
NGUYEN: Over time, he became this cultural icon, this martial arts God. But to me, the story is in figuring out how we kind of make proximity to the people that we look up to the most, our heroes, our icons.
DEADLINE: Obviously, you have Lionel Richie on board as an interview subject and as a producer, but was it difficult to establish that proximity, to find the people under the icons?
NGUYEM: You know, this film came out of the pandemic, when we were all stuck in our own world. I felt like I needed something that united us as a world. What better sort of story to tell than We Are the World when we’re living in such divisive and polarizing times. To see again, all these amazing talents come into a room together and do something worthwhile was just reassuring. It was heartfelt.
DEADLINE: To step aside from that, for a sec, the film opens at Sundance on the 19th and then goes global on Netflix on the 29th. That’s a very different ride than Be Water had just four years ago, how do that feel to you?
NGUYEN: It’s a roller coaster to be honest. I mean we just finished a final version of the film after some more work to get it ready for Sundance. I feel quite honored to be watched globally on Netflix. As I said, my parents still live in Vietnam. I had to set up my mom’s Netflix account, so she’s watching The Crown with Vietnamese dubs and subtitles like no other person in the world – but that’s the reach of the platform. So that exciting, I mean, I love Sundance so much, but, you know, for the rest of the world Sundance is just as a name. They don’t know what it is. Everybody knows Netflix.
DEADLINE: Having said that, Lionel is going to be with you at Sundance, any surprises we can expect, other special guests showing up?
NGUYEN: (LAUGHS) I cannot promise anything. Though I will say, you might see me trying to get Lionel Richie to sing karaoke at Sundance. That’s the only secret I have so far.
DEADLINE: In that vein, Lionel Richie is a producer on this film and one of the main subject matters, does that prove complicated for a probing filmmaker such as yourself?
NGUYEN: Certainly, you want to have this level of objectivity and distance from the participants of the film. I think that was maybe a more traditional way of looking at documentaries. But ,I think as we started this film and trying to give agency more to the people who are actually living the stories and these are their lives, I lean towards giving people again, more credit for being a big part of the story.
I should say that Lionel was such a generous and collaborative partner, and we couldn’t have made the film without him. That being said, he was never hands on with anything in terms of story.
DEADLINE: The story takes on manipulative edge when you get to Sheila E. and her realization that she was invited to the session because they wanted to get Prince to participate, which proved unsuccessful.
NGUYEN: It is one of the most heartbreaking moments of the film for me.
NGUYEN: Yes, and when I heard it, Sheila told me she had never told spoken about it before. When we were editing, Lionel didn’t say anything about wanting to cut it or anything like that. For me, that’s the most important part, in terms of ow honest can we make the film?
Lionel wanted to make the most honest film possible.
I think, depending on the people that you’re working with, you could have different types of celebrities and subjects who might be much more hands on and who might want to sanitize their image, their persona. We really had none of that with this project with Lionel, he was a total straight shooter. He just wanted an honest retelling.
So those are the good and bad things of having someone participate as a subject and be a producer too
As a filmmaker you want carte blanche, I’m telling the story that I want to tell. At the same time, I think I’ve learned over a decade of making documentary films that we as filmmakers are not just storytellers – we’re taking care of a story too. So, I try not think of it in a transactional way. And again, because it’s Lionel’s actual life, it’s his legacy. I was very cognizant of that.
I’m not some sort of an egotistical director saying, Well, it’s my way or the highway. He also gave me that collaboration in his story. It’s not my way the highway Bao, you have agency to tell the story that you’ve the way you want to tell it at the end. Tell an honest story, and I think we did.
DEADLINE: Certainly, with Shelia E…
NGUYEN: Yes. Again, she told us that it was the first time she spoke with her experience and how she felt about that moment on camera. But at the end of the day, she said had no regrets of attending that night and what happened on the song. I can’t speak for Lionel but sometimes in the heat of things, here’s different motivations and things like that. Of course, I wish we could have asked Prince about it. Sadly, we can’t. I still think the song itself is still a testament to pop music and everything, even without Prince’s guitar solo on it – which would have been interesting
DEADLINE: One of the elements of its pure pop genius came alive for me was that footage of Michael Jackson singing an acapella version of the song alone to get a basic track down before everyone else shows up. I don’t want to say it erases some of the conflicting or challenging elements of being a Michael Jackson fan, but it was a moment of pure art. Did it come across like that do you, is that part of why you used that clip?
NGUYEN: You hit the nail on the head. It was about Michael’s pure artistry in that moment and there’s no denying when you hear him singing it, his voice is out of this world.
It was right before everyone left the American Music Awards and headed to A&M Studios. He was there with the techs and Quincy. I wanted that moment where we can kind of just sit and really sit with the artistry, and the generational talent that we’re about to see take place later that night.
DEADLINE: And with unexpected insights from the likes of Huey Lewis, who was so much a superstar of that time in the mid-1980s.
NGUYEN: Huey Lewis is the sweetest man in the world. You know, he flew in for our interview from Montana, and he had all this time between when he finished the interview and when he had to meet a family member who lives in LA. So, he just wanted to sit in that space at A&M while he was waiting. He asked, is it okay if I just like hang outsit and stay at the at the studio and watch you do another interview? We said, of course, It was so sweet and all the memories sort of flooded back to him.
DEADLINE: That sounds like pure documentary gold, like a lot of the backstory for this film …
NGUYEN: Yes. And, you know, at one point I wondered if I was the right person to make this film, to tell this story.
DEADLINE: I get that, anyone would.
NGUYEN: So, during the pandemic I was in Vietnam to visit my parents. I went into this taxi cab with this 70-year old Vietnamese taxi cab driver, and he put in a mix CD and the first song that I played was We Are the World. That was just this moment that I knew that this song had such global resonance and that so many people have a personal connection to it. That’s when I decided to make this film, it was a poignant moment for me to realize this song really touched people all around the world when it came out and still does today.
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