Review: Music as a Diplomatic Tool in Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President

In a truly unique and appropriate way to view politics of the 1970s, filmmaker Mary Wharton has made a film about the campaign and one-term presidency of Jimmy Carter that views it through the prism of the popular rock, country, gospel, folk and jazz musicians he befriended. Aside from being a glorious slice of musical tastes from the period, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President shows how politically effective it was to not just be a part of popular culture but to use it to shape people’s perception of a candidate as a man of the people. And lest we think Carter was just using these musicians to boost his profile (which is true), he also maintained these friendships during and long after his presidency and deep into his post-White House life of public service. Testimonials by the likes of Garth Brooks, Trisha Yearwood, and Bono do a great job speaking to this aspect of Carter’s life.

Image courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment

According to the film, music played an indispensable role in Carter’s run for the White House, including a fundraising tour by The Allman Brothers Band, and other key appearances/performances by the likes of Jimmy Buffett, Charlie Daniels (a Republican at the time), Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash (who claimed to be a distant cousin of the candidate, which probably wasn’t true), and perhaps most notably, Willie Nelson, whose legendary story about smoking pot while an overnight guest at the White House is retold here. Carter is famously a Bob Dylan fan as well, inviting the folk/rock legend to the governor’s mansion in Georgia where the two privately discussed faith after Carter awkwardly quoted Dylan’s lyrics to him to prove his fan status.

Rock & Roll President is loaded with new and archival interviews with both musicians as well as members of Carter’s team at the time, including former UN Ambassador Andrew Young and Madeline Albright, who served on the National Security Council until Carter left office in 1981. She has some of the most astute observations about Carter’s strengths, as well as details about his downfall during the final year of his presidency while hostages were being held in Iran, which led to a severe economic downturn in the United States.

The film also covers how Carter used music as a binding force during his presidency, holding concerts at the White House celebrating all forms of music—the jazz concerts seem to be the rowdiest. The movie doesn’t dig too deeply into the minutia of Carter’s politics or many of his detractors, but Rock & Roll President isn’t attempting to tell his  life story or even the story of his presidency; this is the story of his passion for music and how he found a unique way to convert that into votes and won an election few thought he could. The film does talk briefly about the strides he made in the Middle East and with the country’s relations with China. (When the leader of China requested a visit to Nashville, you can bet Carter not only made it happen, but made sure the city rolled out the red carpet for the dignitary.)

Carter himself is interviewed extensively for the documentary, and not surprisingly his insight into his activities and strategies is the most interesting. The argument has long been made that he is the one president who has done more for the country since his term than during, and I’m not sure he’d argue with that. But his contribution to the modern campaigning landscape was used later by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and this film ensures that it will not be forgotten. The film has some great, singular live performances, and provides a parallel way of looking at government and politics. It’s the most fun I’ve had being educated in a long time.

The film is now playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.