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‘We Are the World’ doc provides nostalgic fun

Gray Areas

“There comes a time

When we heed a certain call

When the world must come together as one …”

Those who were alive in 1985 just mentally sang those words, maybe while doing a Stevie Wonder sway or tucking their thumbs in their front pants pockets while patting their hip a la Michael Jackson.

The new Netflix documentary “We Are the World: The Story Behind the Song” takes viewers back to that time when just about every radio station in America premiered the song recorded that year to raise money to fight famine in Ethiopia.

The song written by Lionel Richie and Jackson and produced by Quincy Jones featured a who’s who of performers from multiple genres.

The movie doesn’t offer a decent answer to one of the biggest questions surrounding the recording session — Why was Dan Aykroyd there? — but it’s filled with entertaining stories and new interviews with many of the participants.

Richie shares tales of trying to write the song with Michael Jackson while surrounded by his menagerie of animals and waiting to hear from Stevie Wonder, who they also wanted to be a co-writer.

There are stories of the negotiations on who to invite — Cyndi Lauper or Madonna? — and anecdotes about who walked out in the middle of the recording session (Waylon Jennings) and who had too much to drink in the studio (Al Jarreau). There are some bittersweet memories as well, such as Sheila E believing the only reason she was invited was to hopefully lure Prince to participate. It didn’t work.

As entertaining as all the machinations of the writing and the recording of the song are, even more fascinating is watching the B-roll, the background footage shot in 1985 of what was happening in the room at the time.

The 46 vocalists there are used to being the center of attention whenever and wherever they enter.

Someone like Huey Lewis had three top 10 singles in the year leading up to that night, but he had to be looking around and thinking, “I’m a nobody here.”

I found myself focused on Bob Dylan whenever he was on camera. Few artists have been treated like a god the way Dylan has, and he looks visibly uncomfortable in nearly every moment because he was so out of his comfort zone.

Dylan has a multitude of talents, and he’s a wonderful interpreter of songs, both his own and others. But he’s not a choir singer, and he’s in a room surrounded by pure, perfect voices. In every group shot, he looks like the lyrics of Radiohead’s “Creep” are running through his head — “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here.”

When he first starts recording his solo part, his vocals are quiet and tentative as he tries to contort his voice the best he can into what he’s heard in the room. And he’s about as successful as making a trombone sound like a flute.

No one actually says it, but you can tell that everyone around him is thinking, “No one invites Bob Dylan to be on a record and wants him to try to sound like James Ingram. Be Bob Dylan.”

Eventually he gets it, and there’s no better place for the rasp that sang “Blowin’ in the Wind” in the ’60s than on a song trying to alleviate world hunger in the ’80s.

A lot of people hate “We Are the World.” They think it’s lame and treacly. Maybe it is. I own the album, but it’s been played maybe once this century.

But the goal wasn’t to write the greatest song ever; it was to craft an anthem to raise money for a humanitarian cause. It worked, raising $80 million since its release.

“The Story Behind the Song” will make viewers appreciate the herculean task it was to make, essentially taking pieces from 46 different puzzles and somehow finding a way to fit them all together.

It’s a fun, nostalgic watch. When it’s over, head to YouTube to watch the official music video, which isn’t shown from beginning to end in the documentary.

Also search for comedian Kevin Meaney’s “We Are the World” routine, where he pantomimes the entire song. Yeah, it’s mostly cheap shots at Paul Simon’s height, Steve Perry’s nose and the kind of gags that land differently in an age of body positivity. But I still laughed.

Andy Gray is the entertainment editor of Ticket. Write to him at agray@tribtoday.com.

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