En Español | In 1976, few would have pegged Jimmy Carter as a rock ‘n’ roll rebel. He was a peanut farmer, a Southern Baptist, a Georgia governor and a former Navy officer who would soon become president. But a new documentary makes a strong case for his counterculture credentials. In Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, director Mary Wharton examines how popular music helped a little-known politician from rural Plains, Georgia, ascend to the highest office in the land.
The film opens with a clip of candidate Carter quoting Bob Dylan's “It's Alright Ma (I'm Only Bleeding),” then jumps ahead 42 years to find the ex-president at home dropping his turntable needle on Dylan's “Mr. Tambourine Man.”
Rock & Roll President chronicles music's role in Carter's campaign, presidency and life after the White House, through archival footage and an astounding array of interviews. Musicians weighing in include Dylan, Willie Nelson, Bono, Paul Simon, Jimmy Buffett, Rosanne Cash, Trisha Yearwood, Nile Rodgers, Garth Brooks and Gregg Allman (who gave one of the last interviews before his death in 2017). Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright appears, as does civil rights leader Andrew Young.
Filmmakers twice interviewed the now-95-year-old Carter, who asserts, “Music is the best proof that people have one thing in common no matter where they live, no matter what language they speak."
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The former president may be best remembered for the Iran hostage crisis, the Camp David Accords, the Panama Canal treaties and skyrocketing gas prices that fueled his landslide loss to Ronald Reagan in 1980. He was also the first major politician to seriously partner with rock ‘n’ roll and youth culture. The documentary reveals Carter's lesser-known side as a music lover with close ties to Nelson, Dylan, the Allman Brothers and other superstars of the era, who not only threw their weight behind his campaign but also developed lasting friendships with him. As Carter tells it, the Allmans put him in the White House by performing fundraisers when he ran out of money.
Dylan and Carter formed a lasting bond after the songwriter visited the state mansion in Georgia. In the film, Dylan recalls: “When I met Jimmy, the first thing he did was quote my songs back to me. It was the first time I realized my songs had reached into the mainstream. It made me a little uneasy. But he put my mind at ease by showing me he had a sincere appreciation. He was a kindred spirit."
Carter makes no effort to varnish music culture's rough edges. He gleefully points out an error in Nelson's autobiography. The outlaw country star wrote about smoking pot with a servant while staying overnight in the White House. “It actually was one of my sons,” Carter corrects, noting that Nelson didn't want to impugn the Carter family reputation.
He also relates a tale about gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, a Carter admirer and friend who blew up when he wasn't granted an early campaign trail interview. Thompson got drunk, stuffed newspapers into trash cans and set them on fire in front of the hotel room door of Carter's press aide Jody Powell.
"There were some people who didn't like my being deeply involved with Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan and disreputable rock ‘n’ rollers,” Carter says in the film. “But I didn't care about that because I was doing what I really believe. And the response from the followers of those musicians was much more influential than a few people who thought that being associated with rock ‘n’ roll and radical people was inappropriate for a president."
Rock & Roll President, on demand, in virtual theaters and headed to CNN in January, “was a story hiding in plain sight,” says director Wharton, a longtime producer of TV music documentaries. “The draw for me was the challenge of using the music documentary form to explore the life of a former president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. It was counterintuitive and intriguing. I saw an opportunity to look at the power of music and at a man who has been unfairly maligned."
Producer Chris Farrell says the project drew “an embarrassment of riches” as Carter allies across the music spectrum volunteered to participate. Only two subjects were tough to nail down: Dylan and Carter himself. Dylan was game but difficult to schedule because he was on tour. Crews stalked him around the country before cornering him in a secret location. Carter relented but was leery.
"He showed up early, and the first few minutes were tense,” Farrell says. “As soon as he realized that we weren't going to ask about the current political environment or his mistakes in office but just about his love for music, he lit up."
Carter beams throughout the film, whether he's singing “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie at a White House performance or reminiscing about inviting Aretha Franklin to his inaugural.
At a time when youth and their musical idols rejected politicians as phonies, “along comes Carter with this generosity of spirit, and he's an astute listener of music,” Wharton says. “It's rather rare in politics to find someone as honest and authentic as Carter was."
She and Farrell hope viewers will enjoy the film's bounty of musical and historical treasures, as well as its lessons about music's power to unite and revelations about Carter's personality.
"Music is one of the most powerful forces humankind has created,” Wharton says. “It reminds us that we have more in common than our differences. Carter appreciates that in a deep and philosophical way. He was a master in using music to cross the political divide. By looking at Carter's life through this lens of his relationship to music, a portrait starts to emerge of his honesty. He was honest even when people didn't want to hear it."
Farrell suggests that Carter is an example for our time.
"We weren't trying to do the definitive documentary on Carter,” he says. “We're trying to get people to see something they didn't see before. Music has a powerful way of bringing people together. He saw that. He was someone with strong moral courage and strong moral leadership. At the end, he talks about how you should try to be the best possible person you can be. If we could all do that, half — if not all — of the divisiveness in this country would be gone."