Jimmy Carter was never the cool president. He never had the revolutionary appeal or dynamism of JFK, or Obama's epoch-defining importance. But he was the first president to just hang with rock stars. "It was the Allman Brothers who helped put me in the White House," he explains before namedropping Willie Nelson as a house guest. "Bob Dylan never came down here," he laments, but when Johnny Cash brought June Carter Cash to stay in the Georgia governor's mansion, the Zimmerman ommission is clearly less of a loss.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, Mary Wharton's musical history of the 39th president, isn't about making him cool. Now his reputation has passed beyond the right wing myth about the weak-willed liberal (Republicans still pretend that Reagan, the union leader who sold out his members to make his political bones, was a tough guy: Carter ran white supremacists out of power in Georgia when the Klan was still a powerful terrorist force). He's the rare political figure who is more recognizable in retirement – the adorable old man building homes for the homeless remade his reputation.
What Wharton adds seems, at face value, at odds with what you think you know about the soft-spoken peanut farmer. There's an interconnectedness between his political and cultural lives. Fans of the era's music will flip out over rare footage of the Allman Brothers at an early fundraiser for the Carter for President campaign, but it's not just about the songs. Wharton puts Carter at the heart of the Progressive South, where bands would wear cowboy hats with ostentatious feathers but also be integrated.
Equally, Wharton brings an extraordinary diversity of speakers to explain the wildly eclectic archive footage she assembles, with as many foreign policy experts as guitarists. She misses a beat or two by glossing over the musical history of the presidency at large – Kennedy's love of Broadway show tunes, Clinton's saxophone – but her analysis of Carter's understanding of "soft power," of how culture bonds us together, is inspirational. That was vital to Carter, who wanted to desperately to be the great healer, who could find common ground with John Wayne, Dizzy Gillespie, and Hunter S. Thompson. Most importantly, her story reinforces that there was nothing studied about Carter. He wasn't a tourist, hanging with celebs for photo ops, or using songs they don't understand (cough cough "Born in the USA" cough). It's how he could walk into a Black church and didn't need a hymn book to join in. It's knowing that Jimmy Buffet will draw a bigger crowd in Oregon than he could. It's the way his face lights up, seconds after dropping the needle on "Mr Tambourine Man." He was never cool, but even now we're realizing his importance. Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President puts a new melody to the ever-deepening portrait of a man whose humility hid his verve and soul.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President is available in theaters and as a virtual cinema release via www.jimmycartermovie.com.
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