“Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” returns to the same point over and over again — the 39th President of the United States had great taste in music, and was not afraid to use it. The charming, lightweight celebration of Carter’s affinity for the likes of the Allman Brothers and Bob Dylan is loaded with endearing testimony from many of the musicians who helped Carter secure the youth vote, though the title is something of a misnomer: The Georgia peanut farmer who stormed the White House liked gospel, jazz, and country, too. His eclectic interests spoke to the complexity of a leader who remains under-appreciated in those terms, and as the movie salutes the warmth and creativity of Carter’s mind through the music, it’s a nice reminder of American leadership with sincere interests at heart.
Anyone looking for profound insights into Carter’s post-presidency life won’t find them here, but Jonathan Demme already provided that more sophisticated look at Carter’s second act with 2007’s book tour behind-the-scenes portrait “Jimmy Carter Man from Plains.” Unlike that verite overview of Carter’s struggles to get the modern world to take him seriously, director Mary Wharton assembles first-rate talking heads and bountiful archival footage to provide a fresh summation of the energy that propelled him to office in the first place. Anyone unfamiliar with the specifics of Carter’s legacy will find much to appreciate.
“It was the Allman Brothers who put me in the White House,” Carter says, recalling the band’s efforts to raise awareness for Carter’s candidacy. They weren’t alone: A fairly spry-looking Bob Dylan makes one of his rare on-camera appearances to call Carter his best friend, singling out the way the former Georgia governor invited the singer to his mansion to express appreciation for his work. Their dynamic was a reciprocal one, as Dylan says he first realized his music had permeated the establishment through the politician’s support, and Carter explains that Dylan’s music helped the busy leader bond with his kids.
While “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” doesn’t always manage to fuse these recollections together, it compensates in a bevy of amusing anecdotes, including the time one of the president’s sons smoked pot at the White House with Willie Nelson. (The singer later claimed he smoked with a Secret Service agent, but Carter has no issue correcting the record years later.)
While Bill Clinton gets a lot of credit for bringing a boomer sensibility to Washington, Carter had the cool factor down first. Once he made it to the White House, the president made ample room for a diverse range of musicians, and one delightful sequence finds him joining no less than Dizzy Gilespie onstage in the Rose Garden. Friendlies ranging from Rosanne Cash to Nelson himself read from Carter’s book of poetry, marveling at his lyrical investigations into American mythology and the nation’s various contradictions of its history, all of which reveal the depth lurking behind that genial smile. It’s here that the movie finds its most poignant intersection between Carter’s public-facing engagement with famous faces and the genuine artistic desires that may have been almost too good for the highest office in the land.
Or maybe they were just never a good fit in the first place. “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” offers only a cursory overview of the Camp David Accords that remain Carter’s signature achievement, the closest America ever came to brokering peace in the Middle East, but those circumstances stand out for how quaint they appear today: In the process of chasing global issues, Carter lost on the national front. There’s nothing new about that, of course, but “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” decides to rehash it anyway.
The movie wanders into a broader portrait of Carter’s tumultuous single term, speeding through the Iranian hostage crisis and economic discord that gave Ronald Reagan an upper hand in 1979. That material never quite sits with the specific focus on music that defines the rest of the documentary, suggesting that the subject of “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is more of a side-dish to his legacy than the feature-length format can sustain.
At the same time, the movie provides a breezy contrast to the dumbing-down of American leadership in the Trump era, and makes a canny argument for cultural exchange as a far better bargaining chip than anything found in “The Art of the Deal”: After all, Carter played country music for Den Xiaping while softening America’s relationship with China, which seems like a much better approach to diplomacy than anything on the 45th president’s Twitter feed. “The world may not trust America,” one interviewee says, “but it trusts Jimmy Carter and his taste in music.” If that had been enough to stabilize the nation, history books might remember him in kinder terms. Until then, “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is a welcome attempt to correct the record.
Greenwich Entertainment will release “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” in both virtual and select theaters on Wednesday, September 9.
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