Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President (2020)

Jimmy Carter, Willie Nelson at Nelson concert / fundraiser for Carter's re-election campaign. (Courtesy The Jimmy Carter Presidential Library)



President Jimmy Carter, Gregg Allman, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Nile Rodgers, Chip Carter, Madeleine Albright, Bishop Michael Curry, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Bono, Jimmy Buffett

Directed by Mary Wharton

Mary Wharton’s wonderful documentary shows how music played an important role in the life of Jimmy Carter long before he became the 39th President of the United States, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and started building homes for Habitat for Humanity as part of The Carter Center, an organization committed to human rights. Interviews with Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, and Garth Brooks are interspersed with archival footage, and one example after another of a humanitarian who led the country with compassion, earned respect from politicians across party lines, and worked towards racial equality while listening to music that included rock, country, jazz, gospel, and classical. A great contrast to #45 and Twitter.

The documentary opens in 2018 as 94-year old Jimmy Carter plays Bob Dylan’s "Mr. Tambourine Man” on an old turntable while sitting in his modest Plains, Georgia home. He grins ear to ear and remarks “Sounds familiar” as the camera moves outdoors to capture the scenic farmland, a nostalgic Phillips 66 gas station housed out of a small wood-framed building, and a downtown that resembles Cuero, Texas except for the sign that reads “Plains, Georgia, Home of Jimmy Carter, Our 39th President.”

Of all the relationships Jimmy Carter built with musicians over the years, one of the closest is with Texas’ own Willie Nelson who is seen performing “Whiskey River” while Carter smiles and claps off stage. The concert footage is from one of the many times Nelson performed for Carter’s campaign. It’s followed by Carter’s humorous tale about the time Willie Nelson spent the night in the White House and smoked pot on the roof with the President’s son Chip. For years everyone thought it was a member of Carter’s staff who took part in the late-night toke-out, but Nelson finally spilled the beans in 2015 when he and Chip fessed up.

Nelson appears several times in Wharton’s doc, in one scene reading a page of Carter’s poetry which he calls “beautiful.” Carter also established a close relationship with Gregg Allman who remembers meeting then-Governor Carter at a party thrown for Bob Dylan in the Governor’s Mansion, “He was cool, he enjoyed our music, he was real, and he became a friend.” Carter attributes The Allman Brothers with putting him in the White House by raising money at a time when he didn’t have any.

Another musician that appears in the documentary is the usually elusive Bob Dylan, “When I first met Jimmy, first thing he did was quote my songs back to me”—“It was the first time that I realized my songs reached into the establishment world and I had no experience in that realm, so it made me a little uneasy.” Dylan goes on to say how Carter never talked down to him and showed extreme appreciation for the songs he’d written.

Garth Brooks is quoted as saying “His love for music makes all kind of sense for me because music is the voice of the heart, music is the voice of the soul, and when you talk about heart and soul I think he’s the President in my mind, of my living time, that I can think of, that brought it to the office.”

Jimmy Carter was a President that brought people together, not one that divided our country like the current administration. Tom Beard, former Deputy Assistant to the President, backed by archival footage, recalls the time Charlie Daniels, a Republican, did a concert for Carter’s 1980 reelection campaign in Alabama where a Ku Klux Klan delegation waving confederate flags showed up to heckle and jeer Carter who was known for his stance on racial equality. Carter addressed the Klan presence by telling the crowd, “the people in white sheets do not understand what our country stands for” and “They do not understand that The South and all of America must move forward.”

With the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement, racism has once again flourished in the current political climate. Carter grew up in a predominately black neighborhood, the son of peanut farmers, and credits various African-American women for shaping who he became as an adult. During his tenures as Governor of Georgia and President of the U.S., he fought for civil rights, declaring “the time for racial discrimination is over." Wharton’s film shows how Carter was the first politician in Georgia to honor native son Martin Luther King Jr. by hanging a portrait of the slain civil rights leader in the Georgia state capitol building.

The documentary also touches base on Carter’s unsuccessful bid for reelection which was marred by the Iran hostage crisis and the rise of inflation. He lost out to Ronald Reagan who touched on Americans’ fears, yet Carter relentlessly continued to negotiate for the release of the hostages instead of hitting the campaign trail. When he left office, Carter was proud of the fact that he never dropped a bomb, fired a bullet, or went to war.

“Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” touches on 39’s political achievements—he negotiated the 1978 Camp David Accords between Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem, the only time in the thousand-year history of the Middle East that there was an official peace—and his strong civil rights record, but Wharton keeps the doc grounded in the music that permeated Carter’s political career.

Wonderful footage of Dizzy Gillespie playing on the White House South Lawn as part of the Newport Jazz Festival’s 25th anniversary is included (He calls Carter up on stage to help him belt out the classic “Salt Peanuts”) and there are clips of Carter’s inauguration which featured Aretha Franklin singing “God Bless America” and Paul Simon performing “American Tune.” John Lennon and Yoko Ono were in attendance and loyal Republican John Wayne made an appearance to congratulate Carter and wish him well.

The word Humanitarian has never characterized any President of the United States better than Jimmy Carter. Wharton’s documentary is a reminder of the possibility of uniting the country with empathy, compassion, and truth.

(4 stars)

In theaters and on Virtual Cinema September 9

Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic. 

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Joe Friar is a member of the Critics Choice Association (Los Angeles) and the Houston Film Critics Society. A lifelong fan of cinema, he co-founded the Victoria Film Society, Frels Fright Fest, and is a Rotten Tomatoes approved critic.

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