“I think music is the best proof that people have one thing in common; no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.”
Of our four living ex-Presidents, there’s no question that Jimmy Carter remains the one who was never fully given the credit he deserved while in office. The perception of Carter today is one which any elder statesman would hope to achieve. He’s been lauded for his work with both The Carter Center and Habitat for Humanity, become a bestselling author and won the Nobel Peace Prize. He will almost always make a point to go and shake hands with fellow passengers on any flight he’s on and continues to champion both up and coming politicians and their modern ideas. But when it comes to Carter’s own term as President of the United States, history hasn’t been all that swift with its re-appraisal. Most point to the Iran Hostage Crisis as the defining moment of his term, while others give him proper respect for the groundbreaking peace treaty he brokered between Egypt and Israel before dismissing him as unpopular leader or worse, a failed President. Now documentarian Mary Wharton has sought to change the image Carter has endured in the nearly 40 years since leaving office with a documentary which showcases his relationship with music of all kinds and the vital role they played in making him Jimmy Carter.
Loaded of archival footage and present-day interviews with some of the biggest names in music history, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President looks at the role music played in propelling the peanut farmer from the south to the highest office of the land. Music royalty like Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Bono recall their friendships with the President and describe how Carter’s relationship with music helped him to govern during one of the country’s most tumultuous times.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President carves out a significant amount of time to show Carter’s ascent to the white house while giving ample attention to the above-mentioned events (mainly through the use of a Madeline Albright interview). But Wharton also makes an admirable effort to spotlight Carter’s other achievements such as normalizing relations with China, de-regulating trucking and railroads, forming the department of education and being ahead of the game with his energy and conservation policies. What would have really driven home how underrated of a leader Carter was would have been more time spent looking at the times in which he led. Too little space is given to the double-digit inflation, unemployment and legendary gasoline lines which dominated the era; most of which he inherited, but almost all of which he was blamed for. Perhaps the area which the documentary unjustly skims over the most is that of the First Lady. One of the most quietly fascinating women to ever hold the title, Rosalynn Carter proves a constant presence in the archival footage, but her revolutionizing of the role of First Lady and her deeply simpatico relationship with her husband are little more than a footnote here, perhaps owing to Mrs. Carter’s reluctance towards on-camera interviews. But it’s hard to hold the criticisms of Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President against it when it manages so much. The attention given to Carter standing up to the racial prejudices of the day and his refusal to accept any decision unless he unquestionably felt it was in the best interest of the American people are beautifully illustrated here, giving further insight and a deeper appreciation of the man himself.
But the main focus, and the reason which will surely lure people to this documentary will be Carter’s relationship with music. The tone is set early on as the film looks back at the future President’s times singing gospel music as a young boy in Plains, Georgia and follows along to the pivotal moment when Greg Allman recalls how Carter persuaded The Allman Brothers to hold a fundraising concert shortly after his campaign launch. That move in particular proved brilliant as it not only helped raise funds, but also established Carter as a politician loyal to tradition, while also in touch with the modern times. The list of music legends who turn up throughout Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President either in archival footage or present-day interviews is nothing short of impressive. Besides Nelson, Dylan, Bono and the Allman’s, Dolly Parton, Paul Simon, Garth Brooks, Diana Ross, Dizzy Gillespie, Trisha Yearwood and Roseanne Cash all make appearances in some form to show their respect and admiration for Carter. Colorful anecdotes are recounted such as the time Nelson and Chip Carter, the President’s son, smoked pot in the white house, or how Carter recited Dylan’s lyrics to him upon their first meeting. Any questions of Carter using his musician friends as clout to help him appeal with younger voters are put to rest when its seen how he implemented these artists and their music into his vision for a better society. In Carter’s hands, music was the ultimate tool of unification, which he sought to use as way of bridging divides of all kinds, including racial, generational and economic. In every scene of the film, we see Carter’s belief in the power of music and how it could serve to further an America very much caught between the past and the future.
It’s been said that a President’s post-white house years don’t rectify any flaws or missteps made while in office. Instead, what that time does is elevate the aspects of a President which were genuine and effective. In the four decades since returning to private life, Carter continues to prove this adage true with his ongoing humanitarian efforts which seem to show no signs of slowing down. But there’s another Carter who emerges from this film; one which saw the possibilities of his country and fellow citizens within it. In an age when Presidents take credit more than they accept responsibility, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President harkens back to a time when there was a leader who was uncompromising in his quest for righteousness and whose belief in the way forward for America knew no bounds. It was the music which Carter used as an instrument for his own advancement, but as the film shows, he also used it for the advancement of people; for the furthering of a society he firmly believed in, despite its problems. It’s tough to tell whether or not anyone will look at our 39th President any differently after watching this, but Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll does right by its subject as it gives him the due, credit and tribute he’s always deserved.