“A Ray of Sunshine in a Dark Time”: A Look at ‘Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President’

Dean Budnick on January 2, 2021
“A Ray of Sunshine in a Dark Time”: A Look at ‘Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President’

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President debuted on CNN on January 3 and it is now available via CNN on demand via cable and satellite systems. Here, director Mary Wharton and producer Chris Farrell reflect on the origins and development of the documentary.

“It began with the Allman Brothers,” producer Chris Farrell explains, as he traces the origins of the new documentary film, Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President. “I was researching and working on trying to find financing for an Allman Brothers documentary, and a guy in Atlanta—Todd Smith, who’s a finance guy— said, ‘Listen, I’m aware of all these stories about Jimmy Carter with the Allman Brothers and other musicians, and I’d like you to come down to Atlanta and meet my partner, Tom Beard.’ He served in the Carter White House along with Peter Conlon, who was a national fundraiser for Carter later in the White House years. [Conlon is also a veteran concert promoter who went on to co-found Atlanta’s Music Midtown and head up the Live Nation Atlanta regional office.]

“So I go down and meet with them, and they start telling me all of these incredible stories,” he continues. “I had known about Carter’s friendship with the Allman Brothers from reading Gregg’s autobiography. But then, as I got up to leave, they started telling me about Bob Dylan. And, when I got up to leave a second time, they started telling me about Willie Nelson. [Laughs.] That’s when I was like, ‘Good God, there’s something here.’ So I pretty quickly turned on a dime and said, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Within a few hours of that meeting, I had called Mary [Wharton]. Mary and I had been looking for a project to work on together—and I said, ‘I think I found our project.’ I knew I wanted Mary to be my director, and it sort of went from there.”

An acclaimed director, Wharton took home the Best Music Film Grammy in 2004 for her documentary Sam Cooke: Legend and her credits include Joan Baez: How Sweet the Sound and Phish’s IT concert doc. For Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President, she drew on a range of voices, including Dylan, Nelson, Bono, Jimmy Buffett, Trisha Yearwood, Roseanne Cash, Chuck Leavell, Andrew Young and Madeleine Albright to tell a story that extends far beyond the 39th president’s musical interests. As the New York Times wrote, “Rock & Roll President is a potent and poignant reminder of how some things used to be and may never be again.”

The film had been slated to open the Tribeca Film Festival until that event was canceled; it instead premiered on the closing night of the AFI Docs Fest. CNN Films acquired the broadcast rights and will air the documentary on Jan. 3, 2021.

Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President opens with a juxtaposition of two images: Jimmy Carter name-checking Dylan and then quoting from “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)” while accepting the presidential nomination at the 1976 Democratic National Convention, followed by Carter cueing up Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man” on a turntable in the present day, with a blissful expression on his face.

Wharton notes, “I think that his understanding of music, and Dylan’s music in particular, just shows what a great listener he is. He is a very astute listener and not only in terms of music. He also listens to what people are saying to him. I think that’s so very important.

“I wanted the film to feel like a ray of sunshine in a dark time,” she adds. “If I can be so lofty, I would like it to offer some sense of hope and some reminder of the things that Jimmy Carter represents— which are truth and justice, and the dignity of individual humans around the world. Historically, that’s also what America has stood for and, hopefully, we can stand for those things again. I think that we have that within us, so I hope people are reminded of it.”

If this film had focused exclusively on Jimmy Carter’s love of music, then it would have been much shorter. However, it’s clear you’re also making a larger statement about race and culture that builds from the fact that he’s a lifelong music enthusiast, going back to his earliest days listening to gospel while in church.

MARY WHARTON: At the outset, I didn’t know anything about Carter’s association with these musicians. I didn’t know that he was friends with Willie Nelson, Gregg Allman and Bob Dylan, and that was immediately interesting and intriguing. But if you had asked me to make a film just about his friendship with these guys, then that to me wouldn’t seem like a very interesting film. It’s an interesting anecdote but, as a feature length film, not so much.

At the same time, I am not the appropriate director to make a biography of Jimmy Carter. I am not the right person to try to tell his entire life story in a sort of traditional way. I’m not a political expert in any way—other than the fact that I read the newspaper and try to stay abreast of what’s going on in the world like any normal person. But I would consider myself a music historian, based on the fact that I’ve made a bunch of music documentaries over the past 20 years—that’s pretty much been the bulk of my career.

So I tried to subvert the music documentary form and make a proper music doc about a person who is not a musician. That seemed like a very interesting challenge. I wanted to try and apply a form that I was pretty well versed in to a subject matter that, on the surface, wouldn’t seem like a natural fit. I thought that, though we still wouldn’t get the full and complete story of Jimmy Carter’s life, we could still show who he is as a man, as a human.

I’m also trying to get at the thing that I think is so amazing and powerful about music, the universal nature of it. All humans in the world have found a way to create music from the dawn of humanity. And music has this amazing power to connect us and to remind us of how much we are alike. By looking at Jimmy Carter through the lens of music, I felt that we would find something universal about him.

But what is interesting to me is how unique it is to find a person, in this day and age, with Jimmy Carter’s level of humility, grace and humanity. It was quite a marvel to really dig into that, discover it and find a way to show it to the audience. And I think his love of music was a great way into that.

Courtesy of Carter Presidential Library

Not only did Carter connect with a range of popular musicians but, as the film demonstrates, the musicians really connected with him. What’s interesting about that, in part, is that he wasn’t necessarily their demographic peer. Carter was born in the 1920s; he wasn’t a baby boomer.

CHRIS FARRELL: We had a general awareness of these relationships when we started but, as we got further and further along, we recognized just how much the musicians reciprocated his joy and his appreciation of them. That’s very hard to find today because everything in this society is so polarized. But as you can see in the movie, across genres and age groups, they all have a great admiration and appreciation for him. You don’t often find that musicians have that kind of view—certainly not of a political figure. Seeing how genuine and how authentic and real those relationships were was pretty surprising.

MW: There’s a little bit in the film from this interview he gave to the BBC where the interviewer, Bob Harris, mentions, “You’re quite a fan of pop music,” and he responds, “I really do quite enjoy the artists that I’ve gotten to know here in Georgia—the Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band…” I felt like that moment was such an interesting time capsule that shows him being from a different generation. He never says the words “the music of these young people,” but you can tell that he’s talking about how these young artists are saying things that he can appreciate. I think that reflects his love of humanity.

Baby boomer music—Bob Dylan, the Allman Brothers and Paul Simon—spoke to the human condition. Those artists were seeking truth in the world. This was at a time when America was coming out of Watergate and coming out of the Vietnam War. People were suspicious of the government and distrustful of the establishment world. Before Dylan met Carter, he hadn’t experienced that world of the establishment. But Carter made Dylan trust him because he was so honest and open.

It is an interesting contrast that you raise—that he wasn’t a part of that generation, but he represented something that the people of that generation were hungry for, which was truth and honesty.

CF: And authenticity.

In that context, you induced Bob Dylan to reveal that he knows Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics [to the song “Simple Man”]. Plenty of people will be fascinated by that.

MW: I couldn’t believe it. Either he knew the song by heart or he had gone back and looked up the lyrics. But, either way, it’s pretty cool. And, to hear Dylan quoting Lynyrd Skynyrd, was definitely a professional high point for me as a full-time music geek. [Laughs.]

Another point that comes across in the film is that, just as Carter believes in the dignity of individuals, he has an egalitarian approach to different musical genres. There’s no stratification in terms of privileging one over another—if something hits you in the heart, it hits you in the heart.

CF: At the beginning of the film, he has that big smile [while he listens to “Mr. Tambourine Man”]. And there are another five or six points in the film where you see him experiencing various different types of music with that same massive grin on his face. Music just brought him joy, regardless of the genre. You can see that enthusiasm with jazz, you can see it with country—there’s no stratification. Still, to this day, when he talks about music, it just brings him joy.

The film’s title is obviously catchy but did you also view Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President as a metaphor?

CF: The first night after I heard the story, I had it in my head that I wanted to call it “The First Rock & Roll President.” Even though I was only 10 years old when he was elected, I was aware that, while Bill Clinton or Obama get the cred for bringing cool music into the White House, Carter was really the first rock-and-roll president. So while we had scores and scores of names, and we went back and forth, ultimately we ended on Rock & Roll President. We did recognize that someone might say that’s limiting because there’s classical, gospel or jazz but, from my mind, it’s catchy. [Laughs.]

But also he is rock-and-roll. And by that, Mary always raises a good point—there’s this perception that still persists today of him as this cardigan-wearing, Fred Rogers, goody-two-shoes type. But if you look at his decisions— look at the people he hung out with and how he comported himself—then he is rock-and-roll! Without a joint in his hand or a big tall glass of something in his hand, he is rock-and-roll. He’s an independent thinker. And, in the end, we thought that made sense.

When you finally sat down to interview him, what did you find most surprising?

MW: I was surprised mostly by the depth of his musical knowledge. Like Chris said, going into it, we had been told about his friendships with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson—and I expected that he would know about the music of his day. The Allman Brothers were a very popular rock group in the ‘70s, and I figured he would know about other popular music at the time. It didn’t surprise me that he was familiar with the music of Paul Simon or Aretha Franklin. But I was surprised that he was such a real aficionado of jazz—he introduced me to some jazz performers that I had never really listened to before.

I was familiar with the name Cecil Taylor—I knew he was a free-jazz pioneer—but I had never really gotten into free jazz as a thing myself. But when I heard stories about Carter talking about how much he loved Cecil Taylor, I figured I better go check it out. And I was blown away, thinking to myself, “Wow, this is the music that Carter sits around and listens to?” It’s very avant garde, very atonal, very intellectual music. When I started listening to it, I realized I shouldn’t be surprised that Carter would connect with this.

His appreciation for classical music is also broad and deep. It wasn’t just that he was aware of these records, but that he listened to them over and over again—enough to become intimate with them. And that was surprising for me.

The idea of Cecil Taylor playing at the White House Jazz Festival is just so striking. I wish I could have been there to see how he was received.

MW: Unfortunately, that performance was not captured on film, or we definitely would have included it. The camera people at the White House were so perplexed by it that they didn’t even bother to roll their film on it. [Laughs.]

Jimmy Carter. Dizzy Gillespie and Max Roach

President Carter also makes an important statement about jazz being an indigenous style of music that was disparaged, in part, because its pioneers were Black.

MW: It’s something that, until that time, hadn’t really been called out by any sort of major political figure. I’m sure that idea had been called out by plenty of musicians but, coming from the President of the United States, Carter’s statement was rather brave.

There’s also that moment during the 1976 campaign when he describes the Civil Rights Act as the greatest thing that ever happened to the South. For a former Georgia governor and state representative to say that is also quite noteworthy.

CF: I’m not saying Carter was the sole champion of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, human rights abroad— but with his support, all of that was going in the right direction. Now, 40 years on, it is easy to feel like you are in a time warp because that progress has not been built upon. We have not made many great strides. To me, the best example in the film is Carter at the jazz event on the White House lawn. There are so many subplots to that whole day, including him and Dizzy Gillespie. [At Gillespie’s invitation Carter takes on vocal duties for “Salt Peanuts.”] The humbleness of him getting up there and being able to poke fun at himself and have a good time is incredible to see. But, in addition, his ability to stand up there and call out racism on the White House lawn during that time period is just incredible. It’s heroic.

There are several moments in the film that seem to offer a lens into the world of modern politics. For instance, when Paul Simon is performing at the Inaugural Concert, he says, “Perhaps a time of righteousness and dignity may be upon us.” I think plenty of folks will hear those words and apply them to the present. Was that your intention, in some way?

CF: I would say, when we started the film, it was about a year after the election, and we thought there was relevance and resonance. Anyone who’s ever made an independent film knows that you have to have motivation, and there has to be something driving you—and that did drive us in a lot of ways. As Mary said, we’re not political scientists; we’re not politicians. But the messages are pretty clear and, sadly, that sort of environment permeated the entire time that we were making this movie.

We feel that this movie is extremely relevant and extremely timely—without calling out any individuals— given the overall environment that we live in and the divisiveness that we’re faced with. Again, there’s a message here that music, hopefully, can help bring us together. But there’s also a message about the type of leaders that we have, and also the type of people that we are. We try to show his moral courage and leadership, along with his challenge to himself and others to just be good people. And if we could all do that—and if we could all have a song in our hearts—then I think we’d be much better off as a nation.

MW: It was also remarkable, while we were in the process of making this film, how many times things would happen in the world that were so relevant to the things that were happening in our editing room. All of the sudden, China would be in the news again, and then Iran would be in the news again.

We had a cut of the film where the moment when Carter quotes the Dylan lyric at the DNC was in the middle, during the point when that naturally happens in our storyline. Then we decided to move that piece to the beginning of the film, so I was looking for another piece of his speech to use in the middle of the film. That’s when I heard him say, “People are tired, and people are disillusioned, and we’ve been hurt, and we’ve lost some very precious things, and we’ve seen a wall go up between us and our government.” And as I heard him say those words from 1976, I got chills throughout my whole body.

As fences are going up around the White House in 2020, it’s even more resonant when you hear Jimmy Carter say, “We’ve seen a wall go up between the people and the government.” We just want the truth again and we want to feel proud again. Those words from his 1976 convention speech echo in my mind repeatedly. They’re incredible.