'Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President': Film Review

Courtesy of Not Just Peanuts, LLC
As joyful and buoyant as its music.

Jimmy Carter, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and others talk about Carter's love of music and how rock stars helped him win the presidency in a doc premiering as part of the virtual AFI Docs fest.

Bob Dylan says that when he met Governor Jimmy Carter, "the first thing he did was quote my songs back to me." He knew the lyrics inside out, and they began an enduring friendship. Not many years later, President Carter's old friend Willie Nelson smoked pot while visiting him in the White House. Nelson's autobiography said he smoked with a member of the White House staff, but Carter himself now sets the record straight: It was one of Carter's sons who smoked, and Nelson was protecting him.

Those are just two of the many gleeful stories in Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President, a documentary filled with anecdotes and music — gospel, jazz, country and rock. Carter has embraced all those styles and befriended musicians throughout his life. Who knew?

The film's title sounds like an oxymoron. Many things might come to mind when you hear the name Jimmy Carter: President from 1977-1981, the time of the Iran hostage crisis; humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Fan of and friend to scruffy, pot-smoking musicians is not on that list. But the documentary delivers on the promise of its title, with a fresh, buoyant look at the importance of music in the former president's personal and political life.  

Mary Wharton, who made a captivating American Masters documentary about Joan Baez, has directed Jimmy Carter in a smooth, straightforward style, and Mari Keiko Gonzalez has edited it to move along effortlessly. Carter himself is a major presence, sitting for an interview in Plains, Georgia, in 2018, an LP record player behind him. He sets the needle down on "Mr. Tambourine Man," which plays over the opening credits, the first of many familiar but fitting songs. He goes on to recall his boyhood, listening to the radio and to church choirs, which had what he calls "all-night sings."

Carter's involvement obviously brought many other musicians to the film. Dylan, Nelson and Gregg Allman are the most crucial, but there are plenty of others who share memories, including Paul Simon, Roseanne Cash, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks. Throughout, the film conveys how genuine Carter's love of music is. His son Chip Carter says that for a whole year, after a spat when he was young, he and his father communicated entirely by referring to Dylan lyrics. 

The film also reveals how significant musicians were in Carter's path from governor of Georgia to president. When he was barely known on the national stage, supportive musicians would play at fundraisers, bringing him attention and momentum. "The Allman Brothers helped put me in the White House by raising money when I didn't have any money," Carter says. Gregg Allman remembers showing up too late at the governor's mansion after Carter had hosted a party for Dylan and had already changed into comfortable clothes. Allman says he found Carter in torn jeans, barefooted, and that they sat on the porch and polished off a bottle of Scotch. Carter, ever the truth-teller, remembers the porch but gently says the Scotch is "an exaggeration."

When Carter was having trouble attracting crowds to campaign events during the Oregon presidential primary, he took Jimmy Buffett up on an offer to help. Crowds came for Buffett and also heard the candidate. The film doesn't take a deep dive into the powerful connections among money, fame and politics. Comments from political consultants and allies fill out those themes, but the film is content to present the facts, not explore their larger implications. 

Carter brought his love of music to the White House and beyond. Among the snippets of performances in the film is an amazing all-star jazz concert on the White House lawn with Dizzy Gillespie, Dexter Gordon and Herbie Hancock. Another scene shows Nelson singing "Georgia" in Oslo when Carter was awarded the Nobel. Nelson offers the best explanation for Carter's odd-couple friendships with people like Dylan. "Probably he and Bob had a lot of good ideas to exchange because they come from entirely different places," he says. That, of course, says everything about their mutual ability to listen. Nelson's own connection to Carter was more organic, rooted in the South. "Jimmy and I basically come from the same spot," Nelson says.

Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President, now closing the virtual AFI Docs festival, was originally set to open the Tribeca Film Festival, a slot in which a music doc is usually followed by a concert. We can only dream about what such a concert might have been.

The film doesn't ignore the political realities of the Carter presidency, but it does put them in the best light. We're told that the high prices and long lines at gas stations that blighted his time in office resulted from problems that predated his term. And we hear how he resisted advice to attack Iran when they seized American hostages because that would certainly have left the hostages dead. However you look at those two problems, they were major factors in Ronald Reagan defeating Carter when he ran for re-election in 1980. But the documentary is such eye-opening fun, and so clearly not about tackling weighty political issues, that it's easy to overlook the hagiography.

At the end of the film, Carter himself, now 95, adds a word on the power of music in culture and politics, in a comment that finally propels the documentary into the current political moment. Music can unite the country, he says, along with our "belief in the truth, belief in helping others, and our faith in democracy and freedom." All these things, which we share, "will bring us together even after a divisive era of our constantly changing history," he says. He doesn't mention any other president's name. His sly smile says it all.

Production Company: Not Just Peanuts

Cast: Jimmy Carter, Greg Allman, Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson

Director: Mary Wharton

Screenwriter: Bill Flanagan

Producers: Chris Farrell, Dave Kirkpatrick

Cinematography: James Fideler

Editor: Mari Keiko Gonzalez

Music: Bradley Cole Smith, Bill Wharton

Venue: AFI Docs (Special Presentations)

96 minutes