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.