It is unlikely that any other U.S. president will enjoy a biography that includes the likes of Nile Rodgers, Bono and Rosanne Cash reading a poem from a collection of their work, but it seems about right for Jimmy Carter, whose administration was always an anomaly. Already, the president inspired one cinematically adventurous look at his life (which is more than you can say for nearly any other) with Jonathan Demme’s “The Man From Plains,” which charted the press tour for Carter’s controversial “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid,” and now director Mary Wharton offers a second with “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” which hardly hides its admiration for the 39th and yet honors the man who rarely drew attention to himself by shifting the focus from him to the influential role of music in his life.
Carter appears on screen for only a handful of minutes in “Rock and Roll President,” but the litany of musicians ranging from Bob Dylan to Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood to Paul Simon speak to the strong bond he forged with the music community during his rise to the highest office in the land from the small town of Plains, Georgia and over the decades after. It may have been a necessary one when Carter needed the youth vote and his campaign struck a deal with Capricorn Records exec Phil Walden to turn a series of concerts, featuring the white hot Allman Brothers Band and Jimmy Buffett, into de facto rallies. But Wharton reveals how the straight-laced Georgia Governor’s political beliefs had been shaped by what he put on the turntable well before, with his belief in racial equality while growing up in the deeply divided South stemming from being raised on black gospel music (former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young who grew up with Carter recalls how he could join the choir at any church he went to without picking up a hymnal) and how listening to Dylan brought him closer to his sons and the concerns of a younger generation in general.
While the film establishes how the country had been looking for a man of great integrity — and little excitement — in the wake of Watergate, “Rock N Roll President” illuminates how Americans were actually getting a president whose unshakeable convictions gave him the soul of an artist, open to all possibilities in terms of the people he could reach out to and the solutions he’d seek. It doesn’t seem accidental that Wharton saves a section on Carter’s love for jazz until he reaches the White House and opens up the White House lawn for concerts featuring Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock riffing as the president was getting his bearings in office, or that the film reverting to a more traditional biopic style once First Lady Rosalyn Carter closes out a Willie Nelson concert to get back to Camp David for the Israeli-Egyptian peace talks, having the music literally stop before the president become mired in the Iran Hostage Crisis.
When Carter will always be remembered more for what he did after he left office with such global achievements as Habitat for Humanities, fighting for free and fair elections through the Carter Center and eradicating guinea worm disease through the Carter Foundation, the out-of-the-box approach to contextualizing his place in history seems apt, shrewdly recasting his presidency within the rock doc framework of describing a tour with all its ups and downs and having the benefit of having actual musicians tell tales out of school. Besides being true to its subject, “Jimmy Carter: Rock ’N’ Roll President” exemplifies the way art can let people into worlds they can’t access otherwise and not only shows the tremendous impact it can have, but actually makes you feel it.