Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President [AFI DOCS Review]

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President is two good documentaries at once. It's a good political doc, and it's a good music doc. Director Mary Wharton illustrates how important music was to the candidacy, and later the presidency, of Carter. In so doing, the film shows our 39th President as a man, rather than solely as a politician. His notable accomplishments are still celebrated, they're just viewed as being in some way connected to his musical tastes.

Early scenes feature Carter as a candidate. Not just a lover of music but also something of a scholar on the subject, he invited artists like the Allman Brothers to perform at fundraisers or events to help raise his profile. Willie Nelson became a friend during this time, as did Jimmy Buffett and Bob Dylan. They, and other musicians, liked the ideas Carter had for the country. He was the rare politician who represented their beliefs. Young voters, meanwhile, were motivated by the presence of rock stars around him. All in all, it was a perfect match.

During his time in the White House, Carter frequently had musicians of all kinds come to entertain. The documentary has incredible footage of people like Johnny Cash and Dizzy Gillespie onstage with the President. He even duets with the latter on the song “Salt Peanuts.” Through these archival clips, we can easily see how inspired Carter was by their songwriting and performing abilities. That inspiration transferred off the stage. As we learn through his own on-screen testimony (and through that of others who worked with him), he often listened to music to focus his mind when trying to sort through difficult policy decisions.

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President takes time to examine the groundbreaking Camp David talks and the Iran hostage situation, as well as how issues like inflation and rising gas prices led to his overwhelming defeat by Ronald Reagan in 1980. Nelson, Dylan, and other notable stars appear in the documentary to discuss him as both man and leader, as do Madeleine Albright and son Chip Carter. All agree that, highs and lows of his term aside, Carter led by virtue, putting his ideals at the center of his process. Music was the soundtrack to that.

Obviously, there are a lot of great songs in this movie, plus some vintage performance sequences that are enjoyable to watch. The look at Carter's presidency gives a nice snapshot of what he did during his term. The look at his passion for music gets at something even deeper. Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President suggests that the man's love of music was indicative of the love for people in his heart – the same love that continues to guide him to this day.

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President is unrated, but contains brief adult language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.