Lionel Richie has been very emotional lately, but he wants to reassure everyone that he’s okay.
According to Richie, it’s just been a heady experience to look back nearly 40 years and relive all the wondrous and chaotic memories of writing and recording “We Are the World” for the new Netflix documentary “The Greatest Night in Pop.”
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“Every segment of this journey, I cry,” Richie said at the Variety Studio presented by Audible at Sundance Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere. “It just brings tears to my eyes because some of us are not here anymore. Also it was our innocence. We actually were making a difference, so to see the naive version of ourselves, when we actually had an aha moment that we might take all this celebrity and change the world … I’m just emotional about it because I get to watch my kid being born again.”
It’s especially bittersweet because “Michael’s not here,” Richie added, referring to “We Are the World” co-writer Michael Jackson, who died in 2009. “There should be another guy sitting here going, ‘Lionel, what do you think we’re going to do?'” he said, affecting Jackson’s high-pitched frequency. “I need him here to tell you the funny parts about it because in all of this, we were just two creatives having the best time of our lives pulling from the universe.”
Those intimate memories were precisely what director Bao Nguyen and producer Julia Nottingham aimed to capture in the documentary, which chronicles the incredible story of how the track got made.
On Jan. 25, 1985, 46 music icons — led by Richie, Jackson and Quincy Jones — came together for a marathon eight-hour recording session of “We Are the World” after the American Music Awards. The monumental collaboration was documented for the recording of the music video, but the new documentary includes massive amounts of new material, including retrospective interviews with Richie, Cyndi Lauper, Huey Lewis, Kenny Loggins, Sheila E., Smokey Robinson, Bruce Springsteen and Dionne Warwick, as well as never-before-heard recordings of Richie and Jackson writing the iconic song.
“The thing that unlocked the documentary was the footage from USA for Africa. They were amazing and had kept all the archive,” Nottingham explained. “Part two, there was a journalist [David Breskin], and he was smart enough to turn his dictaphone on day one. And he didn’t turn it off until they had finished the song.”
What moved Nguyen most in those recordings were moments of vulnerability from the artists, which helped shape the film’s narrative.
“Michael and Lionel writing and just knowing the pressure — that Quincy is knocking on doors, like ‘Where’s the lyrics?’ We all have experienced that … We all can relate to when someone is just pushing a deadline,” Nguyen said. “Then, when we get into the recording studio, there’s so many moments where these icons of American music and pop culture — who are legends, who have sang the most iconic and famous songs — they are scared out of [their] mind for that one night.”
The magic is what happened next: these singular talents, from across all genres of music, morphed into a family.
“Everyone’s helping each other. Everyone’s picking each other up,” Nguyen said. “That was a really beautiful moment that I don’t think people realize when they hear the song. I mean, the song is so beautiful and such like a collective call to unity, but that night was too.”
Looking back on the footage helped Richie remember the uniqueness of the experience. “You actually saw the chaos,” he said. “I forgot about that. It’s like anything else — when you finish a house, you don’t remember that there was a delay on the steps, a delay on the appliances … It was chaos, but it was a beautiful nest of chaos.”
Watch the full conversation above.
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