Jimmy Carter is the first American president I heard of. So you could imagine a documentary like Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President would naturally catch my attention.
The opening image of the documentary starts in the empty Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. That’s where Jimmy experienced most of his knowledge and influence in his life. It was the church where he was taught his values. It was in a multi-racial town like Plains where he was taught to see African Americans as equals instead of below whites like him. It was his father and how he helped with management of the family peanut business that he learned of hard work and integrity.
One unknown thing about Carter is it was music he connected to most. Carter collected records from a wide variety of musical genres from blues to country to gospel to even rock ‘n roll, which was something presidents before him didn’t want to connect with at all. His first connection started with folk. He took an interest in the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan, especially the song Maggie’s Farm.
His first touch with Rock ‘n Roll came in 1971 as he was campaigning for the Governor of Georgia and stopped by the Macon office of Capricorn Records. There he experienced the music of the Allmans, the Charlie Daniels Band, and Marshall Tucker. Carter struck up a friendship with Capricorn Records founder Phil Walden and the two formed a campaign strategy. During the time, Carter was listening in to recording sessions and developing friendships with the musicians.
When Carter was elected governor of Georgia in 1971, he did a lot to improve the reputation of the state of Georgia as well as the south. The south could be seen as a place where progress was being made instead of clinging onto its racist past. The big surprise was in 1974 when Bob Dylan was invited to see Cater. Jimmy’s song Chip was a big fan of his music. Jimmy complimented Bob on his music and Bob was shocked to how a leader of government, a member of the establishment, quoted his songs back and showed a liking to them.
That same year, Carter announced his intention to run for President. His campaign started with him $300,000 but he knew how to have musicians connect with voters. His biggest help came from the Allman Brothers Band as they helped to raise funds for him. Carter wasn’t simply using them. He was friends with the Allmans. Then in 1976, Carter held a Florida benefit concert with the Allmans, Charlie Daniels, Marshall Tucker and The Outlaws. However it’s not to say Jimmy didn’t have rivals. Edmund G. Brown, who was also running for the Democratic candidacy, also held a benefit concert with many acts including his girlfriend Linda Ronstadt.
In the end, Carter won the 1976 Democratic ticket. During his acceptance speech, he quoted a line from a Bob Dylan song of “a generation busy being born, not busy dying.” When Carter was elected president, Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin sang at his inaugural balls. During his presidency, rock stars visited the White House. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young stopped by in 1977. That same year, Willie Nelson smoked a joint on top of the White House with son Chip. In 1978, Carter had a pig-roast dinner with the Atlanta Rhythm Section.
The documentary then focuses less on his association with rock musicians and more on how he served as president. His presidency was one of many great international feats. His goal was to bring back accountability and integrity to politics that appeared lost after the resignation of Nixon. His biggest achievements were in international relations. He wanted to improve the reputation of the US in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. His biggest achievement was the Camp David Summit in 1979 where he was able to strike a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt.
However things turned on him in 1980. The Islamic Revolution in Iran that started in 1979 had many American held hostage and they still weren’t free. The boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow failed to put pressure on the Soviet government to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan. Back home in the US, there were economic problems. The KKK were even starting anti-Carter rallies. By the time the next election came, Ronald Reagan won. Despite losing, Carter made last-ditch efforts to free the hostages in Tehran. They were finally freed January 20, 1981: the day he left office.
The film continues into his charity and mission work he has done since leaving office. His work has been both national and international. His most famous effort is the Habitat For Humanity housing projects he helped build for low-income families. Even at the age of 96 (which he turned on October 1st), Carter is still at it. Some say his biggest moments came after his presidency.
In retrospect, I think the title is misleading. Yes, Carter liked rock ‘n roll. Yes, Carter had many a rock ‘n roll act as a supporter for his presidency. Yes, the documentary does point it out. However rock ‘n roll wasn’t the biggest thing of his presidency. It does make for something interesting how he had a love for music and how he had many musicians as friends. Nevertheless I found it a bit inconsistent with how the documentary focused on it during the first half but appears to have forgotten about it during the second half.
I was very surprised to see a CNN documentary as part of the VIFF roster. Usually I’d expect to see documentaries that are more creative or more experimental. Not that I’m complaining. I will admit this is the least original or least stylish documentary that I saw at the VIFF. Despite it, I found it very informative and very intriguing to watch about a president I continue to admire to this day. The documentary left me convinced that Carter is way more Christian than Donald Trump ever was. Carter lived out his beliefs.
I give credit to director Mary Wharton and writer Bill Flanagan for creating the documentary. Even though it appears boring in terms of documentary style, it was not short in terms of giving the information. The film did a good job in presenting a president who was a man of dignity and kept his work. Our modern world make it look like being a person of dignity look like a weakness because of how cutthroat the real world is, especially in politics. The film does show how tough it was for someone like Jimmy Carter to be President. Some of today’s politicians would label Carter a ‘marshmallow’ by today’s standards. Nevertheless, it also shows Carter as the President the USA needed in the eyes of the World. He was there to redefine the American South and he was there to redefine the USA after Vietnam and Watergate.
Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President may be one of the least creative documentaries at the VIFF this year. Nevertheless it does make for a good biographical documentary for a president who appears underappreciated during his time.
Okay, you’re probably asking why I’m still doing reviews from the Vancouver International Film Festival when it ended ten days ago, right? Well this review will be the last one. A wrap-up of the festival will follow the next day.
How To Grow A Band isn’t about a rock band. It’s about a bluegrass band that brings a unique sound to bluegrass music. It’s an eye-opener of the challenges of starting a new band in any style of music.
The documentary starts as mandolinist Chris Thile is starting the show for his band The Punch Brothers. The film then goes to the early years of Chris Thile. It first starts back to Chris in 1989 at the age of 8. His father Scott was a bluegrass musician and Chris easily followed in his footsteps. He soon became what you’d call a ‘bluegrass prodigy’, winning mandolin competitions at a very young age.
His father performed at That Pizza Place, a popular bluegrass hangout in Southern California. There he met the Watkins siblings Sean and Sara whose parents also performed there. The three along with Scott formed the band Nickel Creek. They started off playing traditional bluegrass but they switched in their teens to ‘progressive bluegrass’ by mixing traditional bluegrass sounds to alternative rock. They had a career that included being featured on recordings from Dolly Parton, the Chieftains and Glen Phillips as the Mutual Admiration Society. They opened five 2003 shows for John Mayer and two of their albums were produced by Allison Krauss; both of which hit Gold status. They had a career that included six albums and four Grammy nominations including a 2001 win in the Best Bluegrass Album category for This Side. In 2006, the members decided to part different ways because they wanted to expand their musical horizons and held their Farewell (For Now) Tour that ended in 2007.
For Chris Thile, it was exiting Nickel Creek and entering the Punch Brothers who were firstly Chris’s backup band as a solo artist and called How To Grow A Band up until 2008. The Punch Brothers were to take bluegrass in another new direction as part of the ‘newgrass’ movement. The direction they wanted to take bluegrass in was in the direction of ‘chamber music’: a fusion of bluegrass with modern classical. The band consisted of his childhood friend Gabe Witcher on fiddle, Chris Eldridge on guitar, Noam Pikelny on banjo and Greg Garrison on bass.
The documentary takes the viewer through the first two years of the band when they were first recording together to when they first perform together to the periods when they want to take their talent and creativity in new directions for the group. It not only shows them performing together in their sessions but it also shows the radio interviews they gave for BBC radio for their first live performance together, in Glasgow, Scotland in 2006. They’d continue to tour much of England before reaching the United States. They’d perform their The Blind Leaving The Blind suite at Carnegie Hall in 2007. They’d then change their name to the Punch Brothers once signed onto Nonesuch Records.
The documentary showcases the good times they have together performing, signing autographs and being together. It also showed the tensions and arguments the members had while on tour and preparing for recording. It reminds us that even though they are a unified band, they are also five musicians with creative wants and needs of their own. The members even had side projects of their own two. It’s a matter of them finding a balance between personal needs and group needs in order to function well both as individuals and group members. The documentary also features interviews and opinions with the industry professionals the Punch Brothers work with along the way. The things they say about working as a group and of showbiz demands are words that could be said for any group of any music genre. The documentary doesn’t shy away when bassist Greg Garrison makes the decision to leave the band for family responsibilities. It’s sudden but the group is understanding. The group then hire Paul Kowert as the replacement bassists, as seen at the end.
The documentary is a good outlook on a band that’s just starting out. We’re reminded that even when there are musicians with famed reputations, starting a new band is not an easy thing to do. It’s still as risky work as when they tried to get their very first big break. One thing the documentary leaves out of the picture is the personal lives of the members, especially the fact that Chris married at 21 and divorced 18 months later. In fact it was Chris’ messy divorce that inspired their The Blind Leaving The Blind suite. The only one where there was some significant focus on was that of Greg because that would be the reason why he’d eventually leave the Punch Brothers. I guess it was the director’s choice to focus on the members as band members rather than showcase their personal lives.
The documentary not only shows the life of a band but also shows what being a bluegrass musician is like too. There’s not only home videos of Chris Thile as a child but of the other members too. Chris wasn’t the only one who started out young. All of the other members share similarities with Chris in their childhoods. Some were young professional performers at a young age too and Gabe was even a Star Search contestant at 9. Chris Eldridge’s father Ben Eldridge was a banjoist for the 70’s bluegrass band The Seldom Scene. Former Nickel Creek violinist Sara Watkins even talks about the importance of starting out young and performing like a pro as a child. This documentary is as much about the music and musicians as it is about a band in forming and developing.
This documentary also showed some ironies too. Chris and Gabe were part of a tight-knit bluegrass community from Southern California. In fact none of the Punch Brothers hail from Kentucky and the band currently base themselves in New York City. Also as ironic is that it’s Britain that first welcome the music and sound of the Punch Brothers before the Americans do. I always knew the British are more welcoming towards creativity and new sounds but it surprised me how welcoming they were to bluegrass. I will admit that I myself can’t tell the difference between basic country music and bluegrass country. One thing I will say is that the documentary made me like bluegrass music a lot more.
In case you wondered what has happened to the Punch Brothers since 2008 when this documentary ends its footage, they released the albums Antifogmatic in 2010 and Who’s Feeling Young Now? in 2012. They also recorded the track Dark Days for the soundtrack to The Hunger Games and have made appearances on the Late Show With David Letterman and the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. They’re very popular in Europe and are currently touring there as of press time. They’ve also done work with their own side projects too. Most notably Gabe has performed backup with many notable country musicians, provided the violin for the Brokeback Mountain soundtrack and performed with the Dave Rawlings Machine. As for Chris, he’s been the busiest. He completed a mandolin concerto in 2009 which has since been performed by a consortium of orchestras in the United States. He recorded The Great Rodeo Sessions in 2011 with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, bassist Edgar Meyer and fiddle player Stuart Duncan and they even performed together on the Tonight Show With Jay Leno. Most recently he won a $500,000 grant from the annual MacArthur Fellows program.
I was actually designated to be an usher for this documentary leading people to their seats in the dark. This was only the second film I saw in its entirety as an usher. Great film. Right after my ushering duties for the movie were done, I was to distribute ads in promoting their Vancouver show. I took an interest in the Punch Brothers after seeing this documentary and learn more about what they’ve done since the documentary. It’s great seeing what they do and I wish them all the best in the future.
How To Grow A Band is as much a story of the Punch Brothers from the birth of the band to their fruition as it is a story about the music business and a statement about being a bluegrass musician. Anyone who’s interested in getting their band off the ground in any genre of music should see this.
BONUS: If my review got you interested in the Punch Brothers, here’s their official website: http://www.punchbrothers.com/home/
BONUS FOR VANCOUVERITES: As for their Vancouver show I was talking about, the Punch Brothers are coming to Vancouver on November 24th. They will be performing at the Chan Centre for the Performing Arts. Here’s where to go to buy tickets: http://www.chancentre.com/whats-on/punch-brothers