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‘Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President’ Review: A Musically Enlightened Commander in Chief


Of all the cases you could make on behalf of the 39th American president, Jimmy Carter, the one put forward by this film’s title — “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” — is not necessarily the first that springs to mind, unless you’re of a certain age and have a strong memory. But the filmmaker Mary Wharton (with a script from veteran music writer Bill Flanagan) makes good on her hook in this engaging documentary.

The movie begins with archival footage of Carter quoting Bob Dylan in a 1976 speech and cuts to Carter at home in 2018 rocking some Dylan on vinyl. What follows is a musical chronicle of Carter’s campaign, presidency and beyond. (His humanitarian work earned him a Nobel Peace Prize in 2002.)

One amusing note comes during the 1976 primaries, when Carter had fellow Georgians the Allman Brothers Band performing fund-raisers for him. Jerry Brown, then the governor of California who was challenging Carter for the Democratic presidential nomination, decided to bring out arguably bigger guns: Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles.

Rosanne Cash recalls being unimpressed. She liked Brown, she says, but didn’t buy into it. “Honestly I didn’t think he had the gravitas,” she says. “Bringing the Eagles along didn’t help that.”

The array of admiring interviewees in the film is staggering. It includes the oft-reticent Dylan himself, who didn’t sit down for his former bandmate Robbie Robertson’s recent documentary.

“Rock & Roll President” is a potent and poignant reminder of how some things used to be and may never be again. True, Carter was a special case: How many of his political contemporaries had even heard of the improvising pianist Cecil Taylor, whom Carter invited to play at the White House?

And when Paul Simon, playing at Carter’s 1977 inauguration, says, “Perhaps a time of righteousness and dignity may be upon us,” his words resonate in a rather different and somewhat heartbreaking way today, the political atmosphere being what it is, than they did then.

Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes. In theaters and virtual cinemas. Please consult the guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before watching movies inside theaters.

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