By James Calemine
This stellar documentary begins in 1976 with a Bob Dylan quote. The next shot is from 2018 as President Carter plays Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on his turntable in Plains, Georgia. Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President does not disappoint.
Carter speaks high praise of Dylan, Willie Nelson and “the Allman Brothers help put me in the White House by raising money when I didn’t have any.”
Austere shots of the Plains, Georgia, church where Carter speaks on Sundays as well as various other panoramic views of Carter’s small hometown lace the scenes as the narrative unfolds from a kid who didn’t have running water until he was in high school to a man of peace in the 21st century.
The soundtrack exceeds all the rigid standards of excellence, which includes (to name a few) Mahalia Jackson, James Brown, Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Bonnie Bramlett, Dickey Betts, the Allman Brothers Band, Jimmy Buffett, Aretha Franklin, the Marshall Tucker Band, Aretha Franklin, Dizzy Gillespie, Loretta Lynn, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Charlie Daniels.
Musical guests that go on the record in this 96 minute documentary for President Carter include: Trisha Yearwood, Garth Brooks, Rosanne Cash, Chuck Leavell, Nile Rodgers, Gregg Allman, Bono, Larry Gatlin and Bob Dylan. Willie Nelson even reads a poem of Carter’s titled “Plains”.
The film certainly honors Carter’s true love for American music long before he became the 39th president of the United States. Carter admits during the documentary that Bob Dylan’s music kept him close with one of his sons even at the lowest ebb of their relationship.
Macon, Georgia’s, Capricorn Records and Phil Walden played an integral role in organizing performances to raise money for Carter’s presidential campaign. Carter even tells a story about the writer Hunter S. Thompson staying with him at the governor’s mansion for three nights.
Thompson said this about Carter’s Law Day speech at the University of Georgia in May 1974: “I have never heard a sustained piece of political oratory that impressed me any more than the speech Jimmy Carter made that Saturday afternoon.”
We see Carter win the Presidency in the first 40 minutes of the documentary. Gregg Allman and Cher ate dinner with Carter on his first night at the White House. We see Willie Nelson perform “Irene” at a NASCAR event on the South Lawn. We see Carter sing along with Dizzy Gillespie on “Salt Peanuts” at another White House outing.
The documentary explores the middle east peace talks at Camp David, and how Carter facilitated the China ambassador’s highly desired trip to Nashville. The documentary also puts the context of American culture against the backdrop of Iranian hostage crisis, and demonstrates how history got a bit uglier after 1980. Carter did not win re-election, and we can trace time from that point until 2021. Carter never really dropped a bomb, fired a missile or shot a bullet–and there’s certainly something to be said for that fact.
Carter went back to Plains, Georgia, after his presidency and the film preserves his humanitarian endeavors since then. In 2002, Willie Nelson performed “Georgia” in Oslo, Norway, when Carter won the Nobel Peace prize.
Towards the end, in one of my favorite scenes of the film, the director asked Bob Dylan to define Jimmy Carter:
“It’s impossible to define Jimmy–think of him as a simple kind of man like in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song.” And then Dylan quotes the song: ‘He takes his time/Don’t live too fast/Troubles will come/Troubles will pass/Find a woman/And you’ll find love/And don’t forget son/There is someone up above.’
“He’s a nuclear engineer. A woodworking carpenter. He’s a poet. If you told me he was a race car driver I wouldn’t be surprised.” Kind words from the Bard himself…
The Rock & Roll President exemplifies the true power of American music and the soul of Jimmy Carter.