“Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” establishes its subject’s musical bona fides straightaway. The documentary opens with that moment in Carter’s acceptance speech at the 1976 Democratic convention when he quoted Bob Dylan — from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding).” Then, more than 40 years later, we see Carter place a tonearm on a turntable bearing an LP with that familiar red Columbia label. He sits in his chair and grins, listening to “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Carter was a rock ’n’ roll president twice over. He really did listen to the music and was a fan: Dylan, the Allman Brothers, the Marshall Tucker Band. Also, fund-raising concerts played a crucial role in his winning the Democratic nomination. “It was the Allman Brothers that helped put me in the White House, by raising money when I didn’t have any money,” Carter cheerfully states. He later notes that “Gregg [Allman] and I were good friends.”
Allman, who died in 2017, is among the many musicians interviewed. Their enthusiasm for Carter does a lot to make the documentary as lively and affectionate as it is. Others include Dylan, Willie Nelson, Nile Rodgers, Rosanne Cash, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett, Chuck Leavell, Trisha Yearwood and Garth Brooks.
Musically, Carter was a coalition builder. Just look at that list of names. The documentary could as easily have been called “Jazz President” (we see Carter provide the vocals for “Salt Peanuts,” with Dizzy Gillespie on the South Lawn of the White House) or “Country President” (both Carter and Cash mention that it was a running joke between him and her stepmother, June Carter Cash, that they were cousins). It also could have been called “Classical President” or “Gospel President.” Andrew Young, whom Carter would appoint ambassador to the United Nations, recalls what would happen whenever Carter would go to a Black church to campaign. “They’d start singing, and he’d join right in. He didn’t need to pick up a hymn book. He knew the songs.”
The documentary has some marvelous moments. Asked if his father plays any musical instruments, Chip Carter answers, “the stereo.” Cash recalls being awakened the morning after Election Day in 1976 by her parents (her father was Johnny Cash) whooping it up over Carter’s victory. In a lovely touch, several Carter poems — you knew he writes poetry, right? — are variously read by Rodgers, Nelson, Cash, and U2′s Bono. A clip of Aretha Franklin performing “God Bless America” a cappella at the Carter inaugural gala is, in a word, astounding. The way she delivers the final syllable in “oceans white with foam” is worth the Atlantic and Pacific put together.
Things start to flag about an hour in. A little bit of Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner goes a long way, and there’s more than a little bit of him. Future Secretary of State Madeleine Albright talking about diplomatic soft power, while pertinent, does seem a bit peripheral.
More problematic are efforts to make the documentary about the Carter presidency as well as music. The Camp David Accords have a connection, because the protracted negotiations meant Carter had to miss a Willie Nelson concert on the South Lawn. We get a delightful clip of Rosalynn Carter going up onstage to apologize for her husband’s absence, then shyly joining in with Nelson on the chorus as he sings “Goodnight Irene.” There’s no musical connection for the Iranian hostage crisis, though we do get Blondie’s “One Way or Another” on the soundtrack, which sounds jarring and feels brutish.
“Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” isn’t a political documentary, but it is a civics lesson. Carter, being Carter, can’t listen to the music and just enjoy it; he also has to assess what it signifies. This is a man who’s still teaching Sunday school, after all. He says, “One of the things that’s held America together, when it’s been together, is our shared love for music.” That sounds obvious, yet at a time when this country is so far from being together it’s really not obvious at all. Even more than the music itself, or Carter’s passion for it, this alertness to sharedness is what ultimately makes the film moving as well as so pleasurable.
JIMMY CARTER ROCK & ROLL PRESIDENT
Directed by Mary Wharton. Written by Bill Flanagan. At Kendall Square. 95 minutes. Unrated.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.