Jimmy Carter documentary showcases the ‘rock & roll president’

It took 2 ½ years for the story of former President Jimmy Carter’s intersection with music to gel into a documentary.

But those who have known Carter for decades have always recognized the special relationship.

From Willie Nelson to Dizzy Gillespie, Gregg Allman to Luciano Pavarotti, Carter’s appreciation of astute lyricism (Bob Dylan) and powerhouse vocals (Aretha Franklin) alike made him the true first rock ’n' roll president.

On Wednesday, the aptly named “Jimmy Carter, Rock & Roll President” will debut in select theaters nationwide (Landmark’s Midtown Art Cinema in Atlanta). A roll-out on video on demand will commence Oct. 9, followed by a Jan. 3 debut on CNN.

Credit: Greenwich Entertainment

Credit: Greenwich Entertainment

While it was, as director Mary Wharton called it, “a project hiding in plain sight,” it was spurred by Peter Conlon, president of Live Nation Atlanta who served as Carter’s National Fundraising Director in the 1970s and is an executive producer of the film.

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A few years ago, Conlon met with producer Chris Farrell, who was exploring a documentary about The Allman Brothers Band. Their storytelling session evolved from a focus on the Southern rock legends to Conlon’s tales about Carter’s interaction with the band, as well as the former president’s longtime closeness with Dylan and Nelson.

“I switched gears on a dime and called Mary on my way back to the hotel and said, ‘I think we have a project!’” Farrell said in a recent joint interview with Wharton. “We weren’t attempting to be historians, but we’re also taking this surprising story of this man everyone thinks they know and the lore, historically, was that Bill Clinton was the first rock ’n' roll president because of his ‘Arsenio’ (Hall) appearance. We very much wanted to show that music is powerful, and despite the difficult times we’re in, music could be a way of bringing us back together.”

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Credit: Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

Credit: Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

It turned out that Carter’s friendship with the aforementioned folk and country stars was only the surface of his musical comprehension, as the documentary reaps commentary from a genre-spanning parade of artists.

Footage of Allman acknowledging “We had a hand” in getting Carter elected is weaved among interviews with Carter’s Habitat for Humanity comrades Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood (“His love for music makes all kind of sense to me,” Brooks says); Bono (who expounds on Carter’s human rights policies); and Chuck Leavell (“We all felt so bad for him because we felt like he had accomplished so much,” he said of Carter’s loss for a second term in office).

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One of the most delightful bits of archival footage is of Carter singing the succinct lyrics to “Salt Peanuts” with Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach at the first-ever White House Jazz Concert in 1978. Carter stands with his hands awkwardly on his hips, but his grin overpowers any uncomfortableness.

Credit: Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

Credit: Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

The concert was spearheaded by legendary jazz promoter George Wein, who fashioned a lineup that also included Lionel Hampton and Chick Corea. A wheelchair-bound Charles Mingus was in the audience, and a private conversation with Carter brought him to tears.

“He was so deeply knowledgeable about jazz and classical music as a whole,” said Wharton about Carter. “Dylan says (in the film) that he was surprised that when he first met Carter, he quoted Dylan’s lyrics back to him. He’s not just attaching himself to these artists as a way to hope that some of their star power rubs off on him. He knew all of these jazz performers. He understood their music in a way that they could tell that it was genuine and they appreciated that.”

Credit: Getty Images/Courtesy Shorefire Media

Credit: Getty Images/Courtesy Shorefire Media

Carter’s relationship with musicians continued into the current century. At the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, Nelson serenaded Carter with a rendition of “Georgia on My Mind,” as Carter mouthed the words a few feet away. And in 2016, Carter was feted by Bono and Nile Rodgers at the annual gala for the We Are Family Foundation, an organization founded by Rodgers — who makes several appearances in the documentary — in 2001.

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Carter also sat for a pair of interviews at his Plains home in 2018 to reminisce and share his recollections, often a few feet away from a record player. In January, Wharton and Farrell showed the former president, wife Rosalynn and children Amy, Jeff and Chip the result.

“He loved it. He cried and told us via Amy that he wouldn’t have changed a thing and it met all of his expectations,” Farrell said.

At the close of the film, a softly smiling Carter reflects.

“Music is the best proof that people have one thing in common,” he says. In the background, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “A Simple Kind of Man” validates his point.


“Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President”

Starring Jimmy Carter, Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson. Directed by Bill Flanagan.

Unrated. At Landmark’s Midtown Art. 1 hour, 28 minutes.