Exploring the intersection of Jimmy Carter’s presidency and the rock and roll music that he was so fond of, Mary Wharton’s unfussy portrait of Carter, “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is a vibrant film that highlights the importance of music in Carter’s life, and how he used culture (or what others in the film calls ‘soft power’) as president. Featuring a slew of famous musicians, including The Allman Brothers, Willie Nelson, and Bob Dylan, Wharton’s film may not be groundbreaking, but it is nevertheless a sympathetic portrait of a president who used his influence to highlight the arts.
Beginning with Carter’s early life in Plains, Georgia, where he was introduced to blues music at an early age, the film toggles between Carter recounting his own experience with musicians and those musicians telling their own stories of Carter. Immediately, it’s obvious that Carter is a true fan of all types of music, with Bob Dylan recounting at one point that the first time he met Carter, he repeated Dylan’s lyrics to him. “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is filled with this type of information, little facts that don’t exactly push against Carter’s political personality, but also shed light on the minorly revolutionary way that he bridged the gap between art and politics.
More than anything, Wharton highlights the importance of music on Carter’s run for the White House, with him admitting at one point that when he was out of campaign money The Allman Brothers played a show to raise money for him. Often, he would show up at concerts to give speeches. When Carter had trouble attracting crowds during a primary, he had Jimmy Buffett play a show, in which Carter came out afterward. Personally, music seems important to Carter and his relationship to his family, with his son admitting at one point that he didn’t speak to his father for a year, only communicating through Dylan’s lyrics. Carter, as always, comes across as warm and affectionate, never one to overplay his importance or his presidency. When the film transitions to his time at the White House, he admits that the concerts that they held on the lawn were some of his best memories.
By filtering Carter’s presidency through the music that he consumed, Wharton’s film glosses over some important political issues, including the rise of gas prices and the Iranian Hostage Crisis that eventually engulfed his presidency, and gave rise to Reagan’s election. These events are quickly discussed and contextualized, but often attributed to outside forces, never pushing against the progressive pacifist image of Carter that has emerged since his time in office. “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is particularly uncritical when it comes to Carter, not surprising given the film’s access to its subject. However, this lack of objectivity is, in the end, forgivable because of how decidedly apolitical the film is.
Carter, who has already been subject to a number of great documentaries, including Jonathan Demme’s wonderful “Man from Plains,” has emerged post-presidency as a moral voice of reason for this nation, and his relationship with popular music is not surprising. While “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” may lead towards sanctification at times, it’s also a very fun and lighthearted documentary, featuring a number of famous musicians and performances. [B+]