We are less than two months away from another presidential election, and everything feels awful. The country hangs under a cloud of COVID. Forest in the West continues to burn while hurricanes batter the Gulf Coast. Protests morph into riots, and two candidates battle for the chance to set it all right—if only the opposition will let them. Worse, it feels like regardless of which side wins, the situation will only get more combustible.
Why, then, would you want to sit down and watch a movie about politics? Because its got rock ‘n’ roll in it—loads of it.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, from director Mary Wharton, is about the most uplifting 96 minutes you’ll spend watching a political documentary this year. Granted, that’s not a high bar to leap, but it’s enough.
Using the typical talking heads/archival footage formula, Wharton presents Carter’s story—from Plains, Georgia peanut farmer to the elected leader of the United States—through the various connections Carter made with musicians. Politics are about charisma, and Carter had it in aw-shucks spades. But charisma can only get you so far. You need publicity, and Carter had the Allman Brothers, Willie Nelson, even Dizzy Gillespie. Would Carter have been elected president if not for their willingness to come and play? Probably not. Would Donald Trump have been elected if not for The Apprentice?
The music’s great but the coup of Wharton’s documentary is Carter himself, who recounts his work in politics with enough distance to see where the successes and mistakes lie. Carter supplies humility, a welcome counter to the other interviewees who wax poetic about the one-term president.
Wharton tends to wax poetic too. There’s an absence of squabbling pundits and a dearth of vitriol. She makes the world appear kinder. Maybe it was. Or maybe we just want to remember it that way. I’m sure you could make a counter documentary, one that shows how disenfranchised the country was and how ready they were to accept Ronald Reagan after four years under Carter. There would be a lot of truth in that documentary too, but you would also lose all the humanitarian work Carter did after leaving the office. And those are the moments that really lift you up.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (2020)
Directed by Mary Wharton
Written by Bill Flanagan
Produced by Chris Farrell, Dave Kirkpatrick
Greenwich Entertainment, Not rated, Running time 96 minutes, Opens Sept. 9 in select theaters, Oct. 9 in virtual theaters.