The latest documentary from filmmaker Mary Wharton (Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound, 2009) is a love letter to the 39th president of the United States. Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video) tells the story of how music has informed Carter’s life and politics. While the film is full of excellent music and augmented by an impressive array of interview subjects, ranging from Carter to Bob Dylan to Andrew Young to Madeleine Albright, it presents an incomplete portrait of Carter that often tilts toward hagiography.
Above all else, it seems, Wharton wants us to know that Jimmy Carter was (and is) a very good man who believes in the unifying power of music. In fact, as the film underscores in its opening minutes, one of his first musical loves was gospel. For Carter, who grew up in a mostly black community near Plains, Georgia, gospel music has, historically, brought Americans together across regional as well as racial lines. Carter attempted to do the same thing in his political career, and in that quest, Wharton shows, he forged meaningful connections with the music and artists of multiple genres, including country, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll.
The first part of the documentary covers bits of Carter’s early life before turning to his successful 1976 presidential bid. After a pre-titles sequence, in which we see him listening to Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” at his home in Plains in 2018 (“Sounds familiar,” he says, flashing his trademark grin), the song swells on the soundtrack as the camera sweeps over the tiny southern Georgia town before transitioning to shots of a few area landmarks. It’s not the only time Plains appears on the screen. Keeping the movie partially anchored in the place where Carter has lived for most of his life augments Wharton’s vision of him as a humble, simple, and authentic man who has always strived to do what is right. While there is much truth to that perspective, it’s also reductionist, a telling illustration of the documentary’s efforts to valorize Carter at the expense of recognizing, let alone analyzing, the complexities of his life and career.
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This deficiency manifests itself, for example, in the documentary’s discussion of Carter and southern racism. Chip Carter, one of the former president’s sons, explains, “We were liberals, and we were not racist, and in Plains, that meant that you had, like, two other friends,” before recounting the beatings he received after school “because I refused to denounce African Americans.” The viewer learns little about how Jimmy Carter acquitted himself during the civil rights movement. He was not a vocal advocate of racial equality prior to the 1970s despite his antiracist mindset. As he told biographer Jonathan Alter, “I never claimed to have been courageous during the civil rights movement. I wasn’t.” Had he been more outspoken, his business and political ambitions likely would have been dashed.
In the film, Carter mentions taking a different path as Georgia’s governor (1971-1975) than his predecessor, the ugly bigot Lester Maddox, and commenters praise Carter’s tenure in office as signaling a transformation in the South. But Wharton fails to mention that Carter’s 1970 victory was made possible by his conservative primary campaign, in which he ran well to the right of the race’s liberal candidate (at the time, the Democratic Party dominated the “solid South” and, typically, primary races were the decisive contests in determining who held any elective office in the region).
Carter courted the supporters of Alabama segregationist governor and presidential candidate George Wallace. Some of Carter’s campaign staffers, apparently without his knowledge, resorted to overtly racist tactics. So, when Carter did an about-face and said in his gubernatorial inaugural address, “The time for racial discrimination is over,” he shocked many white Georgians who had voted for him (and many black Georgians who had not). Wharton, in her relentless endeavor to honor Carter, therefore erases critical context for understanding the man as well as the time and place in which he began his rise as a politician.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President is at its most compelling when spotlighting the 1976 presidential campaign. Carter was virtually unknown nationally when he announced his candidacy in 1974, and as Wharton establishes, the backing of the music community was instrumental in keeping his campaign financially afloat. In response to the rampant corruption of Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection operation, the Federal Election Commission was formed, in part, to oversee the public financing of presidential campaigns. New rules capping individual contributions to a specific candidate at $1k benefited the grassroots Carter campaign, which figured out that it could gain critical federal matching funds if it held fundraising concerts and counted ticket sales as campaign contributions. In carrying out this brilliant strategy, Carter’s team received the assistance of John Denver, the Marshall Tucker Band, the Allman Brothers Band, Jimmy Buffett, Toots and the Maytals, and many other artists, who played one or more fundraising concerts on the Democratic candidate’s behalf.
An Allman Brothers concert in Providence, Rhode Island, in November 1975, occurred just in the nick of time, as Carter was about to run out of money. In the documentary, he says that “I was practically a non-entity, but everybody knew the Allman Brothers, particularly the ones that came to their concerts, and when the Allman Brothers endorsed me, all the young people there said, ‘Well, if the Allman Brothers like Jimmy Carter, we can vote for him.'”
Carter’s relationship with the Allmans was facilitated by Phil Walden, the co-founder and president of Macon, Georgia’s Capricorn Records, which included the Allmans and numerous other southern rock groups, like the Charlie Daniels Band and the Marshall Tucker Band, on its roster. The film does far too little to credit Walden with helping Carter to ingratiate himself with the music community. Not only did Walden offer his bands for fundraising concerts; he also enlisted the support of such music industry titans as Atlantic Records president Ahmet Ertegun and Elektra/Asylum president Joe Smith.
The documentary demonstrates that Carter’s interest in rock music and his friendships with many of its practitioners, like Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman, and Willie Nelson, were heartfelt. In the 1960s, Carter frequently joined his sons as they listened to their record collection on the high-end audio system that he insisted on buying during financially lean times. Carter was particularly drawn to the records of Dylan, who shared Carter’s social consciousness. In 1974, the film details, Carter invited Dylan and the Band to the Georgia governor’s mansion after a gig in Atlanta. Dylan and Carter walked the grounds as the folk star asked the born-again Carter about “[his] Christian faith”.
Wharton’s documentary argues that Carter’s association with Dylan and other hip people like Rolling Stone‘s Hunter S. Thompson lent Carter an air of hipness and credibility with younger voters. (It’s worth remembering, though, that while Carter won the 22- to 29-year-old vote handily, he lost among 18- to 21-year-olds by two points.) Carter relates the story of Thompson venturing to Georgia to cover Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who had been invited to speak to a gathering of alumni on Law Day at the University of Georgia School of Law. Thompson was blown away by Carter, who refused to defer to Kennedy that day and gave a fiercely populist speech that blasted the inequities of the criminal justice system—to a room full of attorneys, no less—and quoted the lyrics of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”. In archival footage from a 1977 CBC interview, Thompson recounts, “I had never seen Kennedy pushed around anywhere, in any room, and I was stunned.”
Bob Dylan with Jimmy Carter (trailer screengrab)
Wharton tells us nothing about the content of the speech, however, which so dazzled Thompson that, in the months that followed, he played the tape repeatedly and sang Carter’s praises to countless colleagues and politicos. Another portion of Thompson’s CBC interview (not included in this documentary) deepens what the eccentric reporter admired about Carter, but it also complicates the straightforward message that Wharton wishes to convey. Thompson went on to say that, along with Muhammad Ali and the Hells Angels’ leader Sonny Barger, Carter was “one of the three meanest men I’ve ever met.” By that, Thompson meant that Carter always kept a laser focus on accomplishing the goal at hand—whether it was speaking hard truths at the Law Day speech or winning the presidency.
Carter cloaked this killer instinct in a “magnolia shade” that led some people to underestimate him, Thompson maintained. Similarly, Wharton’s documentary, with its interview clips of an affable, 90-something Carter and the never-less-than-positive comments about him from musicians and former aides, keeps its subject behind that magnolia shade, refusing to veer from its glowing depiction of the former president.
Despite these limitations, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President affords viewers an aural and visual feast. Wharton and her collaborators have unearthed compelling footage like Buffett and his band’s impromptu acoustic concert in the lead-up to the 1976 Oregon primary and Aretha Franklin’s moving rendition of “God Bless America” at Carter’s inaugural gala. Just before the Franklin performance, the film shows John Wayne’s remarks at the event: “I am considered a member of the opposition—the loyal opposition, accent on the loyal. I’d have it no other way.”
This is not the only time that the documentary references the polarized state of American politics in the Age of Trump and looks nostalgically on the Carter years as a less partisan time. Indeed, says Madeleine Albright about the Carter administration’s diplomatic recognition of Communist China, “President Carter followed through on what had been an opening by a Republican president [Richard Nixon], and I find that the bipartisanship of that is something that is worth noting, given what some of the atmosphere has been on that recently.”
The Carter White House, Wharton demonstrates, was a welcoming place for musicians of virtually all types, a marked contrast from the Nixon era. Rock musicians “weren’t just window dressing” and “were welcomed in”, according to Buffett. Several non-rock concerts were held at the White House, too, including one by Dizzy Gillespie, during which Carter joined the jazz trumpeter on stage to provide the famous vocal part (quite poorly, as the film hilariously exhibits) on “Salt Peanuts”. Wharton also includes footage of Willie Nelson singing at an event outside of the executive mansion in 1978, while First Lady Rosalynn Carter stands next to him and sings along.
Despite such compelling footage, the documentary stumbles in its treatment of the Carter presidency. At this point, the music becomes more tangential to the narrative, and Wharton offers all-to-quick asides on key moments during Carter’s term. For instance, the director uses the Nelson concert merely as a segue to a brief examination of Carter’s role in negotiating the groundbreaking Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. Elsewhere, Carter is rightfully lauded for bringing a human rights emphasis to US foreign policy, though this discussion sits uncomfortably alongside a section on the president’s decision to establish closer ties to China, which invaded Vietnam in 1979 and was known for its human rights abuses.
Regardless, this does lead to a humorous segment on the Chinese ambassador’s visit to Nashville, in which, at Carter’s request, the foreign dignitary was feted by the country music community. Wharton’s coverage of a far more somber situation—the president’s efforts to find a solution to the seemingly intractable Iranian Hostage Crisis—Carter’s recollections of holing up in Harry Truman’s old office and “play[ing] Willie Nelson music primarily.” Whether it’s the hostage saga or other lowlights of the Carter administration, Wharton gives Carter a pass.
Domestically, the 1970s was a time of soaring inflation and high unemployment. By the third year of Carter’s presidency, a global oil shock caused fuel prices to spike and forced Americans to sit in long lines at gas stations. The economic and energy crisis, former special assistant to the president Jim Free asserts, “made Carter appear like he was weak.” This and other commentary present Carter as merely a victim of circumstances, with no mention of his notable deficiencies, e.g.: his failure to communicate effectively with or to inspire the confidence of the American people (outside of a political campaign); his inability to devise a coherent governing philosophy and; his naïvety in thinking that he could simply “do the right thing” and cease to think politically once he became president.
In the documentary, Carter is rightfully praised for his restraint in not attacking Iran to get the hostages out. (He did greenlight a surgical military rescue mission that failed, the subject of another recent film, Barbara Kopple’s Desert One.) But in making the case that Carter was a successful president—better than is generally remembered—Wharton falls short. A short news clip recorded after the 1980 election shows journalist Roger Mudd listing some of Carter’s domestic accomplishments, though its inclusion seems like an afterthought.
Arguably, Jimmy Carter was a good president, and indeed several journalists, historians, and administration officials have recently made that claim; however, Wharton is not interested in probing Carter’s policy choices. With its cherry-picked take on his presidency and its failure to contextualize adequately the state of US politics and society in the mid- to late-’70s, Wharton’s film is ill-equipped to deal seriously with such a knotty issue.
Carter’s musician friends could not save him in 1980, when Ronald Reagan crushed his hopes for a second term. In assessing his loss, Wharton continues to lean too much on the Carter-as-victim-of-his-circumstances narrative. Episcopal Presiding Bishop Michael Curry blames “a sense of spiritual depression” and a changing “global climate and … national climate” for Carter’s defeat. (Actually, the “spiritual depression” predated Carter’s presidency, and as a candidate, he had promised to address it.) Record producer and Chic co-founder Nile Rodgers, a former Black Panther who, earlier in the documentary, says Carter’s 1976 “campaign made us feel like we now had a president that started to see the world the way we saw it” supplies a fitting thesis for the film’s facile view of the Georgian’s presidency: “I’ve always felt all along that he got the shortest end of the stick of any president that I can think of in modern history.”
Wharton devotes the last part of her documentary to Carter’s long and admirable post-presidency. Through the Carter Center in Atlanta, he and Rosalynn have worked to ensure the integrity of foreign elections and to eradicate illnesses, including Guinea worm disease. Wharton also features the Carters’ work with Habitat for Humanity and Jimmy’s well-deserved winning of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2002. While this material rounds out Wharton’s’ treatment of Carter’s humanitarian impulse and his desire to do good for others, its connection to music is tenuous, sustained only by the movie’s inclusion of interviews with Bono, Trisha Yearwood, and a solemn (and maddeningly whispery) Garth Brooks.
In the film’s final minutes, Dylan pays tribute to his friend Carter, unexpectedly quoting Lynyrd Skynyrd by calling him “a simple kind of man.” But Dylan also notes, “There’s many sides to him. He’s a nuclear engineer, woodworking carpenter. He’s also a poet. He’s a dirt farmer. If you told me he’s a race car driver, I wouldn’t even be surprised.” It’s a funny line that belies Dylan’s (and the documentary’s) “simple man” description of Carter. For, in some ways, yes, Carter is “simple”, in that he has held fast to a set of core values throughout his life. Still, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President misses a lot about the man: his ambition, his stubbornness, his never-ending commitment to self-improvement, and—despite all the shots of the interior of Carter’s church in Plains—the way that his faith informs everything he does.
As Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” plays on the soundtrack, Carter reflects on music and other aspects of American life that might serve as sources of unity amid present-day rancor: “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. In the future, I think we’ll recognize that some of our religious beliefs, belief in the truth, belief in helping others, and our faith in democracy and freedom—those are the kind of things that are similar to music that we can share and eventually will bring us together even after a divisive era of constantly changing history.”
Without a doubt, Carter’s essential goodness and career of public service is worth praising, especially after what America has recently endured under a president who is in so many ways Carter’s antithesis. And the film certainly functions as a fun, nostalgic romp through a political environment that, sadly, feels almost alien when compared to our own. Still, the documentary fails to wrestle with Carter’s fundamentally enigmatic nature. “Oh, it’s impossible to define Jimmy,” Dylan says at one point. Any work that aims to capture Carter’s essence would be wise to ponder that offhand, yet profound, statement.