AFI Docs Series | Jimmy Carter rock & roll president

(during all of this week, Screen Comment’s Eric Althoff gives readers his take on the choicest films from the 2020 crop of AFI Docs, the world’s premier documentary film festival which took place online this year due to the coronavirus)

Now 95 and the longest-lived of any former president, Jimmy Carter is seen in the opening moments of Marc Wharton’s doc at home in Plains, Georgia, spinning a Bob Dylan record, talking about how Dylan’s folk music spoke to this simple man, but also of how Dylan’s calls for social justice resonated with Carter’s life mission.

And if that weren’t enough to convince the viewer of the validity of the film’s title, Carter then recalls how, during his tenure in the late-’70s, his friend Wilie Nelson smoked pot with one of Carter’s sons in the White House. Indeed, Dylan, Nelson and Roseanne Cash are some of the many rockers seen in this documentary, who speak of Carter not only as a president who wished for social justice at home and abroad, but who also loved the music.

All such anecdotes aside, “Jimmy Carter Rock & Roll President” provides a welcome new glimpse into the 39th president, whose one term was torpedoed thanks to nait-biting inflation, the gas crisis and the hostages taken in Iran by the Ayatollah’s forces. Though regarded by many histories as a lackluster commander in chief, Carter’s post-presidency is the stuff of legend. He still builds houses for Habitat for Humanity, with his friends Garth Brooks and Tricia Yearwood saying on camera how the ex-president runs circles around them in the hot sun with a hammer in hand as he still pushes to house his fellow man.

But the rock n’ roll world’s overlapping with the White House is the main focus of the film, and Carter was arguably the first president whose tenure so seamlessly married the culture and counterculture—helped no doubt by his service in the Navy but also his love for the gospel music of rural Georgia, where he and his family were considered outliers for their more liberal social attitudes in the Jim Crow era.

Carter remains a national treasure, and likely wouldn’t want excess praise heaped upon him, because there’s still more work to do. He and wife Rosalynn continue that work rather than look at the past—the very definition of a modern elder statesman.

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