Lionel Richie has a hand placed amicably on Bao Nguyen's shoulder.

‘The Greatest Night in Pop’ is filmed like a heist

Vietnamese American director Bao Nguyen on his latest documentary: a making of the Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie hit song “We Are the World”

Lionel Richie with Bao Nguyen.

Courtesy of Netflix

Words by Nguyên Lê

ABBA’s “Happy New Year.” Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” George Michael’s “Careless Whisper.” U.S.A. for Africa’s “We Are the World.” You could bet money that these songs will likely be performed on any given karaoke night—including those hosted by Vietnamese households (I know you’ll hear them at mine in Texas).

Of these four classics, the fourth one has re-entered pop culture zeitgeist thanks to the recently released Netflix documentary, The Greatest Night in Pop, about the making of the one-of-a-kind charity single. Directed by Vietnamese American filmmaker, Bao Nguyen, the film premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and marks the second time Nguyen has covered a landmark in the entertainment world; in 2020 he helmed the Bruce Lee-centric documentary, Be Water, for ESPN’s 30 for 30 series.

“As the child of Vietnamese refugees who had limited English skills, our home was filled with the music of Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers, and amongst these records was the We Are the World album,” Nguyen says. “Though I was only 2 when the song was released, its presence was a constant in our household. It became more than just background music; it was a bridge for my refugee family and me to the English language.”

I recently got to chat with Nguyen ahead of the 39th anniversary of “We Are the World,” (which was March 7) and found out more about how the untold story behind the song came together, the directorial touches he employed and his second-greatest night in pop.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

A crowd of people standing together in front of a sign that reads "USA Africa." They're holding hands and smiling.

Musicians assemble!

Courtesy of Netflix

Nguyen Le: The Greatest Night in Pop, in a way, lets you examine how two topics you often return to, music and activism, interact, yes?
Bao Nguyen: Yes, The Greatest Night in Pop serves as a profound exploration of the intersection between music and activism, two themes I find myself drawn to repeatedly. This documentary provided a unique lens through which to examine how these powerful forces can converge to create a moment of significant cultural and social impact.

The process of making this film allowed me to delve deeper into understanding how artists wield their influence to drive change and how a song can become a rallying cry for global unity. It underscored the potential of music as a form of activism, one capable of transcending barriers and inspiring collective action for both the generation that was alive during the making of the song and hopefully today with a new generation watching the film.

NL: How would you describe the rhythm, or the melody, of the documentary? And how did you settle on it?
BN: When crafting the film, we aspired for it to exude the propulsive energy and suspense akin to a heist film, with each moment unfolding like a cliffhanger. This vision was masterfully brought to life in collaboration with our main editor, Nic Zimmermann, who was instrumental in creating this rhythm for the film. Our goal was for the audience to feel deeply immersed in the drama of the night, experiencing the recording session of “We Are the World” as if they were part of the historic event themselves.

This involved a deliberate decision to imbue the documentary with high stakes and urgency, alongside moments of intensity balanced with reflection, ensuring viewers remained on the edge of their seats. Through this approach, we aimed to offer a fresh perspective on a well-known piece of music history, allowing audiences to experience the landmark moment as if they were right there in the studio, witnessing the creation of “We Are the World.”

A photo of Michael Jackson and 3 other people all looking at a music sheet.

Huey Lewis, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson in "The Greatest Night in Pop."

Courtesy of Netflix

NL: How were your visual storytelling skills tested here?
BN: Our visual storytelling skills were significantly tested and honed through the creation of The Greatest Night in Pop, especially in the meticulous recreation of the first half of the film. Unbeknownst to many viewers, the first half of the film was a recreation based on the visual language that was created in the actual recording session footage on the night, which was mostly sourced from the original.

We committed to authenticity by using the same type of cameras that were used in the 1980s, tapping into raw archival audio to enrich our recreations, and paying close attention to detail while working with our production designer to replicate the original locations. This dedication extended to our collaboration with the creative crew, where we collectively brainstormed how a documentary crew of that era would approach filming, as opposed to adopting a modern cinematic recreation style.

NL: Now, the question I’ve been dying to ask: The second-greatest night in pop?
BN: That's a hard question to answer...but Michael Jackson's halftime performance at the Super Bowl stands out. This event not only showcased MJ's unparalleled talent and showmanship, it also marked the beginning of a new era where pop culture and sports spectacle intertwined.

His performance set a new standard for halftime shows, transforming them into a must-watch event that often outdo the game itself. It established a trend where the worlds of music and sports coalesce to create moments of unparalleled entertainment and cultural significance, demonstrating the powerful impact of pop music on global audiences.

Published on April 17, 2024

Words by Nguyên Lê

Nguyên Lê is a Vietnamese-English bilingual film critic, writer and translator. He also likes to think he's an amateur cook and photographer, assuming there will never be a time when the kitchen catches fire or the camera is gifted to the ocean. His portfolio site is here, his Twitter is @nle318 and his Facebook is @nguyen.le.334.