There’s a moment in Mary Wharton’s “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” that looks downright surreal — at least, in light of the bombs-away culture-war politics that have come to rule our own era. It’s Jan. 20, 1977, the night of Carter’s Inaugural Gala, and introducing the festivities is that favorite son of progressive liberal Democrats, John Wayne. In the audience are John Lennon (in a tux!) and Yoko Ono. The performers include Paul Simon and Aretha Franklin, and when Aretha delivers her a capella rendition of “God Bless America,” it gives you tingles and chills and everything else. The evening has a we’re-all-in-this-together quality that feels positively and creatively…American.
“Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is a documentary of infectious and lively nostalgia that’s about just what its title says: the fact that Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. president to express, in ways both big and small, a profound affinity with rock ‘n’ roll culture. Yet in telling that story, the film touches on something larger — the way that alliances in America that may seem unlikely come to seem inevitable. It’s about the forces that have to come together to make America work.
I say “unlikely” because the notion that Jimmy Carter was a “rock ‘n’ roll president” is more than a bit counterintuitive. The film opens with a clip of Carter’s speech at the 1976 Democratic Convention, in which he quotes Bob Dylan (“We have an America that, in Bob Dylan’s phrase, is busy being born, not busy dying”). It then settles in with Carter, who at 95 is articulate and agile in a wonderfully sharp but gentle way, as he sits in his living room and drops the needle onto an old vinyl record. “Mr. Tambourine Man” starts playing (“Sounds familiar,” Carter jokes). As we learn about the connection that Carter felt to Dylan’s records, and to those of Willie Nelson, it’s certainly easy to imagine the peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., whose family had worked the land there for 150 years, grooving on these folk/country hippie traditionalists.
But when you talk about Carter and rock ‘n’ roll, the band that made the connection stand out — the one that turned heads and helped to put him in the White House — was the Allman Brothers Band. And though Carter loved all kinds of music, that’s more of a brain-spinner. In a clip from 2002, as Carter is being given the Nobel Peace Prize, we see his good friend Bono, who is there to pay tribute to him, introduce the former president by saying, “He campaigned with the Allman Brothers. You got the feeling that if his hair was a little longer, he’d be in the Allman Brothers.”
That’s a good line, but the truth is that Carter, in his checked slacks, with his courtly manners and meticulous decency, seemed too square to have been the accountant for the Allman Brothers. He was a president with the soul of a minister, and maybe a poet (which he very much is — he’s published several books of verse), and his Dylan affinity fits into all that. The Allman Brothers, on the other hand, were blistering bad boys whose shows conjured up a jam-band vision of good times and sin. Yet as Carter made his run for the presidency, starting in late 1974 and ’75, he formed an unlikely but inspired union with them.
Did Southern rock help elect Jimmy Carter president? On the face of it, that sounds insane, given all the things that did elect Carter president, starting with Watergate — that is, with our collective desire, after the implosion of Richard Nixon, for a leader who wore his morality on his cardigan, and who had an opposite set of values from those we associated not just with Nixon but with politicians in general.
Yet Carter, the closer you looked, was a fantastic contradiction. He was rooted in tradition — the small-town Southerner who became the first Evangelical president (quite an irony given that he was unseated, four years later, by Ronald Reagan’s alliance with the Christian Right). In 1976, though, he was quite an outsider, a gentleman renegade opposed by many in his own party. His association with the Allmans, and with artists like Charlie Daniels, made his outsiderness look plugged-in, and it gave him a credibility with what was then called “the youth vote.”
The musicians he loved became his warriors-at-arms, his political signifiers, and his friends. In the movie, Bob Dylan says that when he met Carter, the first thing Jimmy did was to quote his songs back to him, and that was the first time, says Dylan, “I realized my songs had reached into the establishment world. And I had no experience in that realm. It made me a little uneasy.” Carter, for all his aw-shucks decorousness, knew how to bond with the hippest people in the room, as Hunter S. Thompson attests when he talks about the three nights he spent at the Carters’ home during the ’76 campaign. (Carter tells a good story about Thompson getting drunk and setting trash on fire in front of White House press secretary Jody Powell’s front door, after he learned that he wasn’t going to be granted any front-of-the-line access to Carter as president.)
“Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” is full of great footage of Carter hanging out with the musicians of the day — at campaign benefits, and at the White House, where he hosted everyone from Diana Ross to Dolly Parton to Muddy Waters to jazz legends like Sarah Vaughan and, at one point, an extraordinary ensemble of Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and George Benson. The speech he makes that day is extraordinarily moving — a testament to the central place of African-American artistry in the life of America.
We also hear some good dish, like a story about how Gregg Allman and Cher joined Carter for his first dinner at the White House (none of them knew from finger bowls, and Cher drank out of hers), or how Willie Nelson arrived fresh out of jail after a drug bust in Jamaica, or how Crosby, Stills, and Nash just showed up one day, or how in 1979, when relations between China and the U.S. were thawing, Carter arranged for the Chinese ambassador to have a weekend trip to Nashville. We see photographs of the ambassador meeting Johnny and June Carter Cash (who claimed to be Carter’s cousin) and playing the guitar, and the look on his face speaks volumes about the possibilities of creative diplomacy.
Watching “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President,” it’s hard not to be stirred by the testimonials, from people like Dylan and Nelson and Bono, to Carter’s fine-grained humanity. But you could also say that Carter’s alliance with rock musicians helped pioneer the fusion of politics and showbiz — the one caught by Robert Altman, with prophetic eeriness, in “Nashville,” which came out in 1975 and was framed around a Carter-like politician who rises out of the South and conscripts country music’s finest to do a benefit for him. In the movie, that’s part of the problem, not the solution. And while Carter’s fusion with the music he loved was deep, when you hear about how he tried to find a way out of the Iran-hostage crisis by retiring to his office and listening to Willie Nelson sing gospel, you think: Maybe, at that moment, he should have put his albums away.
The last third of the movie loses the rock ‘n’ roll thread, and tries to make up for it by looking at the downward slide of the Carter presidency through rose-colored glasses. In an interview long after he left office, Carter says, “I’m grateful now that we went through four years in the White House and we never dropped a bomb, we never fired a missile, we never shot a bullet to kill another person.” That track record might be something to put on your resume if you were applying to be the president of Denmark, but in Carter’s case it was the measure of his wholesome naîveté. Even as the Iran-hostage crisis closed in on him, the rock ‘n’ roll president seemed to be saying, “Imagine all the people…” “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” can make you wistful for Carter’s decency, and for how it was embedded in his love of music. But it also makes you see that his presidency unraveled the more it became Carter’s song of myself.