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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » We Are the World - the Story Behind the Song
We Are the World - the Story Behind the Song
Image // Unrated // February 1, 2005
List Price: $19.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Crichton | posted February 1, 2005 | E-mail the Author
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"Check your egos at the door."

On January 28, 1985, some of the most popular artists in the 80's along with music legends came together to do their part to combat hunger in Africa. Twenty years later, this event has been humiliated [SNL skits, the Simpsons, etc.] and duplicated [Hear 'N Aid, Northern Lights, Voices That Care, Artists United Against Apartheid, etc..], but never replicated. Sure, it's commonplace to throw a bunch of celebrities in a room and film it in hopes of inspiring the public to be awed at the mere mention of the Backstreet Boys and N'Snyc recording on the same song [gasp!], or you could choose to do what Sir Geldof did and attempt to recreate the event with current pop stars ["Blasphemy!" according to some Brits]. Wisely, and perhaps thankfully, those responsible for USA For Africa chose to release this set to commemorate the 20th anniversary. 

During the political and social unrest of the 60's and 70's, it was common for musicians to express themselves in song. Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Harry Chapin and Marvin Gaye were a few of the artists responsible for laying down some of the greatest vocal commentaries ever. By the time the 80's rolled around, John Lennon, Harry Chapin and Marvin Gaye were silenced. Insipid one hit wonders were filling the airwaves. Hostages were taken in Iran. There was an assassination attempt on our President. Cats and dogs were sleeping together. Plain and simple, there was upheaval in the world. However, despite all the injustices, the music industry was nowhere near as social or political as it had been during the previous decades. All that changed on November 25th, 1984 when Bob Geldof gathered some British [and one or two American] musicians together to record "Do They Know It's Christmas?".

While the intent of "Do They Know It's Christmas?" was to bring to light the situation in Africa, it also inspired long-time activist Harry Belafonte to phone Ken Kragen, a former talent manager, and pitch the idea of an American version of Band Aid. The first two artists contacted were Lionel Richie and Michael Jackson, both at the highest points in their careers, and together they wrote "We Are the World" in a mere two hours. Along with famed producer Quincy Jones, Stevie Wonder and session musicians Greg Phillinganes [keys], John Robinson [drums] and Louis Johnson [bassist from Brothers Johnson], Michael and Lionel assembled a rough cut of the song which was sent to the invited artists. Then, on January 28, 1985, immediately after the American Music Awards, some of the biggest stars in music: Billy Joel, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Hall & Oates, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Bob Dylan, Ray Charles and Tina Turner, amongst others, gathered at A&M Recording Studios to lay down what would become an 80's staple. 

Disc one contains the main feature which runs 52 minutes [technically 41 minutes since the "We Are the World" music video is a part of the documentary]. Hosted by Jane Fonda, I wouldn't really consider this a "documentary" since it's solely raw footage of the artists recording the song. From Michael Jackson demonstrating an unused chorus to a spontaneous performance of Belafonte's "the Banana Boat Song (Day-O)", we're even treated to a brief cameo from Emmanuel "Webster" Lewis! While it was amusing to watch artists from many different genres interact with each other, the "how's" and "why's" weren't discussed as in-depth as I would've liked. The "Bonus Tracks" submenu, gives us the following options:

  • Michael's Guide Vocal [1m 46s]

  • Recording the Chorus [9:20]

  • "Sha-laa" Background Chorus [1m 26s] - Michael demonstrates an unused chorus that has Smokey Robinson asking Ray Charles "Ray, would tell me what "Sha-Laa, Sha-lingay" means?" 

  • Day-O [3m 7s] - Watch as the choir launches into a spontaneous rendition into Harry Belafonte's most popular song.

  • Recording the Solos [5m 31s]

  • Bob Dylan Solos [9m 16s] - Believe it or not, Quincy wanted Bob to sing his part like that!

  • Bruce Springsteen Solos [9m 4s] - What surprised me while watching this disc was the level of energy Bruce displayed. In interviews he's always quiet and guarded, but during the recording he was playful and very hilarious.

  • Stevie And Diana [3m 36s]

  • Karaoke Track [6m 26s]

Selecting "Play All" will give you the option of playing the feature with or without "Outtakes". Selecting "With Outtakes" will cause a globe to pop up in the corner of the screen at various times. Hitting the play button when the globe appears will access the longer, sometime alternate footage above.

Disc two contains the 10th Anniversary Special "One Song Many Hands". Narrated by Harry Belafonte, it also runs 52 minutes. This feature was more of a documentary, talking about what the recording of "We Are the World" had accomplished and the follow-up event, "Hands Across America" which was to help homelessness in America. Basically, this documentary contained what I felt was missing from the first. 

Also included on this disc is the live performance of "We Are the World" from "Live Aid". Surprisingly, we're given the option of selecting from three different telecasts: ABC, BBC or MTV. Knowing what I do regarding what the folks over at Warners went through in assembling the recent [and, IMO, highly recommended] Live Aid DVD set, I appreciated having the option to choose. There's another "Bonus Tracks" submenu:

  • American Music Awards [13m 39s] - Diana Ross presents Harry Belafonte with the American Music Award Of Appreciation. Harry gives a poignant speech that talks about a ripple effect started by Harry Chapin during a tribute the two men, along with Pete Seeger and Don McClain, attended in New York. The acceptance speech is followed by an impromptu [?] performance of the "We Are the World" chorus. There are satellite feeds from Detroit [Aretha!], Tuscon [Johnny Cash!] and London [Sirs Paul and Geldof!] chiming along.
  • Grammys [5m 58s] - See Lionel and Michael accept "Song Of the Year" from Sheena Easton and Duran Duran's Nick Rhodes! Watch Quincy accept "Record Of the Year" from Sting and Phil Collins!
  • Recording the Solos [25m 34s] - EXTENDED footage of the main group of artists umm...recording their solos.
  • Michael Jackson Solos [10m 12s] - Footage of Michael recording his solos, which he recorded instead of attending the American Music Awards.
  • Quincy Conducting [4m 2s]
  • Stevie & the Producers [2m 15s] - A funny outtake with Stevie and some producers.
  • Photo Gallery

Video: Shot on donated video, We Are the World: the Story Behind the Song is presented in a full frame aspect ratio of 1.33:1. The picture quality was sharp and pretty much what I expected from a relic of the 80's. While the colors are vibrant and bright, there was some slight grain on the print and one or two instances of ghosting as the artists were entering the recording studio for the first time. However, this is hardly something that would make this unwatchable.

Audio: The main feature "the Story Behind the Song" and the music video for "We Are the World" are presented in either 5.1 or Dolby Digital 2.0. I went with the 5.1, encoded at 448kbps, as it sounded richer and fuller. The 2.0, encoded at 192kbps, is the only option for the rest of disc one and all of disc two.

Packaging: I'd love to tell you what the disc or cover art looks like. Hell, i'd even like to tell you if there's an insert. Unfortunately, Image decided to send out a blank, generic disc with no case, no cover art, no nothing.  

Conclusion: Being a child of the 80's, I felt a great wave of nostalgia while watching this disc. It made me think of a time when artists did things NOT for publicity, but rather out of the kindness of their hearts. Perhaps it was my rose coloured glasses, but I really enjoyed the footage and I think it serves to document a significant event in the history of American music. The AMA and Grammy material included on disc two was an unexpected treat. However, on the other hand, I do think that those of us who were not there to witness this event when it first happened, might not share my opinions and you'd be better off renting it instead. For everyone else, this is a Highly Recommended set and would look rather nice placed next to the four disc Live Aid collection on your DVD shelf.

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