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How ‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ Got the ’80s Right

The title of Netflix’s new documentary “The Greatest Night in Pop,” which chronicles the recording of “We Are the World,” is a little mystifying. Pop music needs a big audience, but what happened inside A&M Studios in Los Angeles, in the vampire hours between 10 p.m. on Jan. 28, 1985, and 8 a.m. the next day, was seen by only 60 to 70 people in attendance, from Michael Jackson to a small film crew. The song that resulted in this frantic, logistically improbable session is stirring but callow, with a gospel-style chord progression that gives false weight to the platitudinous lyrics.

Prince, who declined repeated entreaties to join the ensemble, sat it out because he thought the song was “horrible,” according to the guitarist Wendy Melvoin. It sold over 20 million copies, with some fans reportedly buying multiples less out of enthusiasm for the music, it seems, than a desire to donate money toward feeding Ethiopians, who were in the midst of a famine that reportedly killed as many as 700,000 people. The song won four Grammys, including song of the year, but almost 40 years later, it has all but vanished from view.

But now, “We Are the World” and the private machinations that went into writing and recording it are up for reconsideration, thanks to the documentary, which was viewed 11.9 million times in its first week of release last month, topping Netflix’s list of English-language films. “The Greatest Night in Pop” earns its swaggering title in two ways. Until someone invents a time machine, it’s the greatest way to see what the mid-1980s were about, thanks to a parade of stylistic and technological hallmarks, and even anachronisms: big hair, cassette tapes, primary colors, satin baseball jackets, leather pants, leotards, fur coats, perms, walkie talkies, even a Rolodex. (Cassettes, unlike perms, have made a comeback.)

It’s also a wonderful illustration of the old maxim that show business is about relationships. The “We Are the World” session brought together most of the singers who made 1984 “pop music’s greatest year,” as many have called it, and benefited from an unrepeatable set of variables. The chain of action that preceded that night was, the film shows, all about calling friends, calling in favors and cannily casting the song with a broad demographic appeal. Here’s a look at how a few accomplished musicians and one relentless manager organized a gala event in only four weeks.

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