Saturday, August 4, 2012

We Are the World

I'm not exaggerating when I say I have never seen a more fascinating bit of rock and roll filmmaking. Just watch as Bob Dylan is patiently guided through his verses by Stevie Wonder. When Bob can't find his way into the song, he turns to Stevie and asks for help. "Can he play it one time?" Dylan asks. And Stevie Wonder does play it. But not one time. He plays it and then he plays it again. And then he plays it again. And again. Quincy Jones may have been the official producer of the session, and he is a presence, but it's Wonder who really produces this section of the song, teaching, encouraging, coaching Dylan.

It's hard to reconcile how timid and uncertain Dylan is at the beginning with the popular view of him, but his unease almost seems to border on fear at times, as he asks Stevie to play and sing his short lines over and over. Others shout encouragement, as if it were a sporting event; you can hear Bruce Springsteen at several points, including him calling out to assure his dissatisfied idol, "that sure sounded great, though, Bob."

But Stevie Wonder's the real star here, even seeming to forget himself, dancing and clapping in the background, when Dylan finally gets into it. He plays Dylan's section repeatedly, helping Bob figure out what he wants to do, and making the key suggestion to the booth to put more drums into the mix, a seemingly odd idea which seems to help Dylan immediately. Bob's relief and gratitude when Lionel Richie joins Jones in congratulating Dylan upon completion of his part is palpable and even endearing.

Bob Dylan is many things. A genius. A monster musician. The most influential American songwriter of the past fifty years. Clearly wickedly funny, intelligent, erudite, sarcastic, private. But the one thing I'd never have imagined he was is sweet.


  1. What I love here is how there are clearly very few people on Planet Earth who could ever walk a titan like Bob Dylan through a recording session like this, and two of them (Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles) are right there in the room with him. I'm not even sure Bruce Springsteen (of 1985 or even of 2012) would or could do that; he'd be too deferential to one of his idols. But Stevie (and Ray, had he chosen to) knows he is able to offer something, and he has the stature to do it and pull it off.

    Stevie steps in and offers Bob advice that he not only knows will work, but knows will be appreciated. What must it be like to possess the confidence and the chops to be able to instruct Bob Dylan on a piece of music? THAT is truly staggering.

    The truth about the We Are the World session is, facile/trite lyrics aside, it was mayhap the greatest assemblage of musical talent in the last 100 years. Look at who is there, in terms of megastars - Ray, Dylan and Stevie are there, and are joined by Michael Jackson and Paul Simon and Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross and Willie Nelson. When the likes of Billy Joel, Lionel Richie, Kenny Rogers, Harry Belafonte, Dionne Warwick, Cyndi Lauper and Steve Perry can be considered a room's "B-Level" talent, well, you've got yourself one hell of a collection there.

    And watching these musical Gods not only collaborate but advise each other, help each other out? It's kind of like watching Larry Bird give Michael Jordan free-throw shooting instructions. And having Jordan not only listen, but appreciate what he's being told.

  2. You're absolutely right about all that—but I think a key here is that Bob asks for Stevie's help. Bob knew who, in that whole room, he could and should turn to for the help he needs. That's astonishing.