Near the beginning of “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President,” the new documentary that explores the 39th president’s connection to the music community during his four-year term, President Carter offers a revelation involving one of his children, country singer Willie Nelson and what Nelson once described as “a big fat Austin torpedo.”
Asked about Nelson’s account of smoking marijuana on the roof of the White House at the tail end of Carter’s term in 1980, the former president lets out a chuckle.
Nelson, Carter explains in the film, “says that his companion that shared the pot with him was one of the servants at the White House. That is not exactly true. It actually was one of my sons.”
It’s a brief exchange, but the coy interaction sets the tone for this affectionate, revelatory film about the ways in which a Georgia peanut farmer, on a mission in 1976 to upend American politics, tapped a kind of political action committee of artists, stoned or otherwise, to make his long-shot run at the presidency. Once victorious, Carter opened his doors to musicians, their art and at least one illicit joint.
Directed by Mary Wharton and produced by Chris Farrell, “Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President” celebrated its theatrical release on Tuesday, part of an extended rollout that will see it move from theater to on-demand in October to, ultimately, CNN at the beginning of 2021.
At one point in the film, Carter sits next to a turntable with Bob Dylan’s “Bringin’ It All Back Home’” cued up and says matter-of-factly, “The Allman Bros. helped put me in the White House by raising money when I didn’t have any money.”
Across Carter’s term, artists including Nelson, Charles Mingus, Loretta Lynn, Bob Dylan, Sarah Vaughan, Cecil Taylor, Linda Ronstadt (who had campaigned against Carter with her then-boyfriend Jerry Brown), the Staple Singers, Cher (and her then-boyfriend, Gregg Allman) and Tom T. Hall either visited or performed at the White House. Crosby, Stills and Nash once dropped by the place unannounced. Carter made time for them.
The musicians’ very presence was a grand shift. Inheriting a Vietnam War-embattled White House that for the eight years prior had been occupied by Richard Nixon and, after his resignation, Gerald Ford, Carter and first lady Rosalynn Carter treated the center of power not as a fortified bunker but as a kind of People’s Park. Members of the Woodstock generation were out of college and getting haircuts. The war was over, and with it the Selective Service draft.
“We thought we were celebrating victories that we had won,” says Nile Rodgers, producer and founder of funk band Chic, of the Carter presidency. “This is at about the height of the Black Power movement, the height of the women’s movement. The gay rights movement has come out.”
“Musicians are always looking for the truth, right? That’s kind of what they do as songwriters,” says director Wharton.