Film

Review: A Sanitized, if Musically Rich, Portrait of the Much-Beloved Performer in Herb Alpert Is…

As something of a specialist in documentaries about famous people, director John Scheinfeld (Chasing Trane: The John Coltrane Documentary, The US vs John Lennon) has taken on one of his most influential and much-beloved subjects: musician, producer, record label founder, artist, and philanthropist Herb Alpert in Herb Alpert Is…. The title itself refers to a statement that each interview subject must complete “Herb Alpert is… kind, thoughtful, a friend, etc.,” and the concept actually fits the film well, not just because Alpert was many things to many people but because the statement forces everyone interviewed to say something nice about the subject. And that’s essentially all this film is—a collection of pleasantries. I’m not attempting to say that Alpert doesn’t deserve the accolades laid out before him in this documentary, but I can think of a couple corners of Alpert’s life that aren’t explored that might have made for a more interesting film.

Herb Alpert Is...

Image courtesy of the film

Still, it’s fun to track the golden career path he experienced from a struggling singer to a trumpet player who led one of the most successful bands—Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass—in recording history, playing a variation on a particular Mexican style of music (even though Alpert was not in any way Latino; his parents were Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe, living in California). Alpert was also blessed by being ridiculously good looking, which certainly didn’t hurt his record sales. But with the success of the single “The Lonely Bull” (trust me, you know it) in the 1960s, Alpert was on his way. The fact that the term “cultural appropriation” isn’t mentioned once in this doc is a little problematic; some of the interviewees (most memorably Billy Bob Thornton) joke that they just assumed for years that Alpert was Latino.

At around this time, he and his business partner Jerry Moss founded A&M Records and ran it independently, making it possible to sign artists simply because they liked them, without having to answer to a board of directors. The result was performers as varied as The Carpenters, Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66, Liza Minnelli, The Police/Sting, and Janet Jackson (whose producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis are featured prominently in the film, since they produced an ’80s-era Alpert comeback album). The stories told by artists and employees alike about the heyday of A&M Records make it seem like their office campus was something special, where musicians would bump into each other going to and from recording studios.

Like most successful music documentaries, Herb Alpert Is… lets the music do a great deal of the talking, and there is a wealth of archival footage to choose from to let us see and hear the music. Interviews with many of the signed artists, as well as family members (most prominently, his second and current wife, singer Lani Hall), friends, and admirers (Questlove, Burt Bacharach, Quincy Jones, Lou Adler, and Bill Moyers) offer their perspectives on Alpert’s story, but mostly they just praise his life and choices as both a musician and humanitarian. There’s a first wife who is barely mentioned, and when she is it’s only as they are getting divorced and Alpert’s life takes a turn for the worse that makes it emotionally impossible for him to play the trumpet for many years. All of which leads to stories about how Lani was the savior of his world and career.

Make no mistake, I’m a massive fan of Alpert’s contribution to the world of music and other media (his “Spirit Totems” statues in front of the Field Museum are very impressive), but if you’re going to make the definitive documentary on anyone, you have to paint the complete portrait, something a painter like Alpert should appreciate. The film is nearly two hours long, so there’s really no reason that the filmmaker couldn’t have taken a couple of minutes to address some of the criticisms about him. I’m sure Alpert had to approve the final film, so this probably wasn’t going to happen. But it would have made the film a bit less of a total lovefest. Still, what’s here is fantastic (if slightly sanitized) stuff, and hearing tunes like “This Guy’s in Love with You” and “Rise” are always a good thing.

The film is now available via VOD.

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