'Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President' Review: A Sharp Look at a Real Music Fan

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Few would argue that Jimmy Carter has had the most impressive post-White House career of any President. Although the hostage crisis will always somewhat overshadow Carter’s Presidency, this documentary artfully unpacks how important music was to Carter.

The warmly engaging film opens with Carter’s 1976 quotation about his confidence in the American public, riffing on Dylan’s lyric that the country is “busy being born, not busy dying.” A quick cut to present-day Carter dropping the needle on “Mr. Tambourine” sets the stage for a musical journey from the backwoods of Georgia to the White House. 

Carter grew up steeped in the Southern roots of music. As a kid, frequent visits to church and access to the family’s battery-powered table radio provided Carter an impressionable amount of music. As he ran for the governor’s office, crisscrossing Georgia, Carter apparently never needed to pick up a hymn book when visiting churches — he knew God’s songs by heart. 

And the film does a good job of balancing the racial inequities Carter saw in his youth with his efforts to correct them as he rose to power. When Carter won the gubernatorial election and replaced the disgusting racist Lester Maddox, his first order of business was putting up a portrait of Martin Luther King in his office. Carter remains the only Georgia-born Nobel Peace Prize recipient.

But in the documentary, music is always the backdrop.

The Allman Brothers were central to Carter’s successful Presidential run, and Carter stood by Gregg Allman after a drug bust.

In the 1976 race for the Democratic nomination, Jerry Brown brought out the Eagles and Ronstadt, but it was too late. Clips of a pre “Margaritaville” Jimmy Buffett show him stepping up when the Carter crowds were thin at a Portland, Oregon campaign stop. Buffet apparently trumps!

At Carter’s Inaugural Ball, after he defeated Ford for the White House, Paul Simon performed a chilling, poignant and perfect version of “American Tune.” Later, the staunch Republican Charlie Daniels is shown gigging in support of Carter’s re-election. And when the KKK shows up at a benefit concert, Carter calls them out in no uncertain terms, declaring that their time has come and gone.

Willie Nelson reflects that it was not a staff member but Carter’s son that the singer toked up in the White House. In a lovely transition, Nile Rodgers starts and Nelson finishes a Carter poem about the President’s hometown of Plains. Nelson and Dylan are the most frequent of the many musicians presented. The ubiquitous, voluble and seemingly obligatory Bono makes an appearance, of course. 

Early and recent clips have Dylan and Carter commenting on the singer’s visit to the Governor’s mansion. These may be the most recent interview segments of Dylan. In fact, seeing Dylan recite portions of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” is alone worth the price of admission. 

The filmmakers gloss over Carter’s failed Iran hostage rescue mission, nonetheless allowing Carter to point out as the film closes that no missile was fired, no bomb was dropped, no bullet was fired during his administration. The film is ably directed by Mary Wharton and well written by Bill Flanagan, the long time, immaculate music journalist and editor, whose excellent novel Evening’s Empire takes its title from “Mr Tambourine Man”, the first song heard in this film. 

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