The acclaimed documentary — featuring appearances by Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Garth Brooks and Larry Gatlin — is now available on streaming platforms and home video.
To paraphrase Donny and Marie Osmond: It’s a little bit country, it’s a little bit rock and roll — and it’s must-see TV for anyone interested in musical influences of all sorts.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, the acclaimed documentary now available on streaming platforms and home video, intertwines recently filmed interviews with the 39th President of the United States and commentaries by such diverse admirers as Willie Nelson, Bono, Bob Dylan, Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, Jimmy Buffett, Rosanne Cash, Chuck Leavell, Paul Simon, Andrew Young and Madeleine Albright. The film also features era-defining live performances by Nelson, Simon and Dylan, among others.
Director Mary Wharton masterfully illustrates how Carter’s engaging approachability, combined with the unifying power of music, became key to his political appeal, and allowed him to connect with voters who, before and during the 1976 presidential campaign, may have known him only as a small-town Georgia peanut farmer. But wait, there’s more: Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President shows how Carter’s lifelong passion for music gave him an unexpected edge as a presidential candidate as he transcended racial, generational, and even political divides, and recalls how his friendships with such notables as Bob Dylan, Gregg Allman, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash helped to define his administration.
During the documentary’s theatrical and VOD release last year, critic Owen Gleiberman praised it as “infectious and lively,” and noted: “It’s about 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.”
We spoke with director Mary Wharton and producer Chris Farrell a while back about Jimmy Carter: Rock and Roll President. Here are some highlights from our conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Cowboys & Indians: How would you describe Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President in terms of matching style and content?
Mary Wharton: Actually, there was one aspect of the film that was a little bit inspired by cowboy movies. When the cinematographer [James Fideler] and I were trying to decide what kind of camera and lens that we wanted to use to shoot the movie, we experimented with a lot of things, and he suggested to me that we look at these anamorphic lenses, which shoots everything in widescreen. And when I looked at them, I was like, “Oh, my God, it’s like a John Ford western movie or something. How cool is that?” It just somehow felt really appropriate to be shooting a movie about Jimmy Carter in that kind of visual format.
And the funny thing to me is that I even had a conversation with the producer of another film while we were in the process of making our film. And he said, “The sort of trendy thing in documentary filmmaking these days is that you have to have some kind of vérité moment, where you’re moving the camera around, and you’re out in the world and you’re filming something as it’s happening.” And when he asked me about Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, he said: “Oh, great idea for a film. What’s your vérité going to be?” And I said, “I’m making a movie about a 95-year-old man, sitting down. There's no vérité.” But I shot it like a cowboy movie in wide screen. It’s just sort of very counterintuitive, but I thought it turned out beautifully.
C&I: Did you ever have second thoughts about the film’s title? Obviously, Carter hung out with folks like Bono and The Allman Brothers. But his musical tastes, then and now, haven’t been limited to rock. As your film makes clear, he appealed to artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Charlie Daniels, Larry Gatlin and Bob Dylan.
Charis Farrell: Well, I can tell you that, literally, within the very first days of planning this project, that was one of the first titles we thought of. Mary and I went round and round, wondering: “Can we think of something else?” But when we threw it out to Bill Flanagan, our writer, and other members of the creative team — this is kind of what stuck. And I think we’re very pleased with it.
Mary Wharton: We definitely got some feedback that perhaps rock and roll wasn’t necessarily entirely appropriate, because it’s not just about rock and roll, as you say. But to me, it was sort of always about the attitude of rock and roll. And also, I think it goes back to that idea of being a little bit counterintuitive. Like, you don’t normally associate Jimmy Carter with rock and roll. In a lot of people’s minds, he’s closer to Mister Rogers than the Allman Brothers.
And so, the idea that the title might cause people to go, “Huh? Wait, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. What is that all about?” To catch people’s attention that way was appealing to me.
Chris Farrell: But Mary’s also right about attitudes. I mean, again, there are these perceptions of Carter. And Mary and I joke because we both love punk music. Punk attitude is very much about independent thinking and stuff like that. Well, rock and roll is also all about rebelliousness and independent thinking. Regardless of what you think about President Carter, he is very much of an independent thinker, and he has a very strong view of the world. And his views are not swayed easily, or deterred by what’s the conventional wisdom.
C&I: Well, also, you can make the old observation that rock and roll itself is a mongrel mashup of gospel, country, rockabilly and all sorts of other musical influences. Just like the diversity of Carter’s musical tastes, and the guests he had at the White House.
Mary Wharton: Absolutely. I think that Carter in a lot of ways defies any attempt to define him by conventional terms. He’s a Christian, but he doesn’t judge people. He was liberal, and a lot of people thought of him as a peacenik, and yet he increased military spending every single year of his presidency, which is something that most people probably don’t realize about him. A lot of times the Democrats are accused of fostering big government. Jimmy Carter deregulated a lot of things while he was in office. He deregulated the airline industry, deregulated the beer industry, deregulated the shipping industry — things like that sort of go against the kind of slogans that people associate with Democrats. And so, I think that he just sort of embodies that notion of kind of being a little bit, I guess you could say, rebellious.
C&I: Speaking of politics: Your film emphasizes that Carter’s appeal was strong enough to bridge political divides. Indeed, many people who weren’t around at the time likely will be shocked to see John Wayne was a guest at Carter’s 1977 inauguration.
Mary Wharton: Well, yeah. I mean, Larry Gatlin, who is in the film and is great in the film — he’s actually pretty well known these days for his regular appearances on Fox and for having a very conservative political viewpoint. But when we heard that he had performed some events for Carter during the 1980 reelection campaign, and had visited Carter at the White House, we actively sought him out, because we wanted to speak to both sides of the political spectrum. And that was important to us that we not just be preaching to the choir.
Chris Farrell: It’s well known that Charlie Daniels became quite conservative during the later years of his life. But during that 1980 campaign, he also played for Carter and stumped for Carter and was a big fan of Carter.
Mary Wharton: I also heard that more recently Charlie Daniels had been asked in a television interview about why he had supported Carter back in that time. And this was after he had become a really staunch conservative. But he referred to Carter having negotiated the Camp David Peace Accords and winning the Nobel Peace Prize as being things that deserved our respect, no matter how we felt about his politics.
Chris Farrell: Charlie Daniels, Larry Gatlin — they may be conservatives, but they just recognized that this was a good human being and a good man. And it crossed those party lines. You mentioned John Wayne, which truly is a very cool moment illustrating what you’re describing. But there’s also that moment when Carter turns to Gerald Ford at his inauguration, and thanks Ford for his service and what he did to bring the country together. I mean, that sort of mutual respect just doesn’t exist anymore.
Breeanna Hare of CNN has curated a lineup of songs that will get you in the mood for “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” and it’s available here. And here is a trailer for the film.