Jimmy Carter, Harry Chapin and the Music of Inspiration

Kino Lorber presents a pair of documentaries that show how two of the 70’s most influential men used music to change society.

It’s hard to document any famous person’s life on film without having it feel like an episode of Behind the Music. I suppose this is because the life of every person who emerged to prominence in the public eye followed the same trajectory; birth, climb, rise and what came after. However it’s when a documentary hones in its subject’s purpose in life, and how it fueled them, that the true essence of a person is really explored. Recently, Kino Lorber released two such examples on DVD, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President and Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something; each one featuring a man with a clearly defined persona who proved to be much more than the public gave him credit for.

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President

When many think of the single term of our 39th President, Jimmy Carter, they tend to remember the long gasoline lines, the double-digit inflation, the “malaise” speech, Iran, how unhappy little Amy Carter looked, and eventually, the groundbreaking peace accords between Israel and Egypt. Director Mary Whatron’s documentary takes a different approach by showing the Carter administration’s relationship with music and how he embraced the lyrics of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson and The Allman Brothers, became friends with all of them and incorporated their forward-thinking messages into his vision of what America could be.

All of the aforementioned artists are on hand to talk about President Carter and plenty of archival footage shows how the President used his music connections to bridge both the cultural and political divides that existed in the late 70s. While Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President doesn’t shy away from the mountain of troubles Carter faced during one of the country’s most tumultuous times, it does show a President who never lost faith in what America could be and that music was the unifying factor to make it happen. As Carter himself points out in the film: “I think music is the best proof that people have at least one thing in common; no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak.”

Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something

No one disputes that “Cat’s in the Cradle” was one of the seminal songs of the 1970s and that its creator, Harry Chapin, was one of the decades most indelible artists. His pioneering efforts of melding storytelling into his lyrics, accompanied by the kind of melodies which defined the music scene throughout the decade, helped make Chapin a name with over 16 million albums sold during his all-too-brief career. His influence on the industry is explored here through an examination of Chapin’s artistry and testimonials from those he inspired, including Daryll “DMC” McDaniels, Pat Benatar, Bruce Springsteen and Harry Belafonte, among many others.

But when director Rick Korn’s film switches towards the singer/songwriter’s humanitarian efforts, a new Chapin emerges. The documentary does an excellent job at showing Chapin’s journey from platinum-selling artist to one of the most socially-conscious figures of his time. His commitment to ending hunger at home and abroad is seen through his founding of such pivotal efforts including Hands Across America and WhyHunger. Korn does a great job of showing how Chapin tried to use his celebrity and musical talents as a tool for making the changes he wanted to see happen get closer to becoming a reality, ultimately forcing him to put his career in the backseat.

Both documentaries do stellar jobs at showing how Carter and Chapin were each men who proved to be more than the ideas people had about them. Current times have shown that their enduring popularity within the public eye has only gotten stronger. In recent years, Carter’s term in office has been reappraised and is now considered to be ahead of its time in many ways while he is greatly respected as the country’s most elder statesman. Meanwhile, Chapin’s “Cat’s in the Cradle” continues to grow in popularity as the years go by and the artist is seen as an innovator thanks to his lyrics. But if either man had to choose, there’s little doubt neither wouldn’t cite their humanitarian efforts as their ultimate legacy. Today, those effort show no signs of stopping as The Carter Center and WhyHunger are seen as two of the most lauded humanitarian organizations in the world. Just like their legacies, the effects of both men’s prolific lives have proven to be long lasting.

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President and Harry Chapin: When in Doubt, Do Something are both available on DVD from Kino Lorber.

Previous post Better Books Beget Better Binging
Next post MAX CLOUD Bursts Its Own Bubble