'Herb Alpert Is...': Film Review

Soundtracks don't come much better.

John Scheinfeld's documentary chronicles the life and career of the legendary chart-topping trumpeter.

"Herb Alpert is…butter!" declares Billy Bob Thornton in John Scheinfeld's film about the legendary musician and record producer. It's one of but many paeans to the trumpeter in this documentary about Alpert's life and career that is more comprehensive than probing. The general tone is made clear in a director's note in which Scheinfeld (Chasing Trane, The U.S. vs. John Lennon) says that he wanted to "make a film that would celebrate a creative and influential life well lived in a way that would uplift, inspire and bring the audience together the way that Herb's music and philanthropy had done for decades." He's certainly succeeded in that goal with this effort, which should well please Alpert's legions of fans and make him some new ones. And needless to say, Herb Alpert Is… has a hell of a terrific soundtrack.

If you're a certain age, just hearing the opening notes of such classic hits as "Spanish Flea," "Mexican Shuffle," "A Taste of Honey," "Lonely Bull," "Whipped Cream" and "Tijuana Taxi," among many others, will bring a goofy smile to your face. Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, who sold more albums than the Beatles in 1965 and 1966, made the sort of feel-good music that is impossible to resist. No less an authority than Questlove, one of many notables interviewed in the film, comments, "It's the happiest music in existence."

The film, featuring extensive commentary by the now 85-year-old (but still going strong) Alpert, recounts the story of a life that, unlike that of many of his musical contemporaries, doesn't really contain much high drama. Sure, he went through a period of depression; he says that at one point he realized, "I'm famous, I'm rich, but I'm miserable." And he endured a two-year stretch starting in 1969 when, for some reason, he found himself unable to produce any sounds on his trumpet. But overall, he's enjoyed tremendous success, selling some 72 million records during his decades-long career, and he's been happily married to his second wife, Lani Hall, for 46 years.

We see Alpert revisiting his old elementary school and childhood home, and hear how he began playing the trumpet in school and immediately displayed a talent for it. He and two friends formed a trio, won a TV talent competition and were soon playing weddings and bar-mitzvahs. When he began his professional musical career he found almost instant success, co-writing the hit song "(What A) Wonderful World" with his partner Lou Adler and singer Sam Cooke. In 1962, Alpert co-founded A&M Records with Jerry Moss; within a decade, it had become the world's largest independent record company, with a roster including the Carpenters, Quincy Jones, Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, Janet Jackson, Supertramp, Carole King and many others.

But it was when Alpert formed the Tijuana Brass in 1962 that he hit the top of the charts as a performer. Inspired by a visit to a bullfight in Tijuana, Mexico, he wrote "The Lonely Bull," incorporating mariachi sounds into the easy-listening music that instantly captured the public's fancy and resulted in a series of hit albums and singles. In the documentary, Alpert recalls how Miles Davis once said, "You hear three notes, you know it's Herb Alpert."

"I could kiss him for that line," Alpert says.

Alpert would later go on to have tremendous success with his solo career, including the 1979 hit "Rise," one of only two instrumental songs to top the charts in the last forty years. In the last few decades, he's also established himself as an acclaimed abstract painter and sculptor, and become a major philanthropist.

All these achievements and more are chronicled at length in the film, as well as his marriage to Hall, formerly a singer with Sergio Mendes and Brasil '66. Their relationship is the subject of a gushy segment in which they speak dreamily of each other and featuring enough loving photographs to fill a wedding anniversary album.

It's hard not to wish that the documentary had delved a little more deeply into its subject, who comes across throughout as affable and down-to-earth as he's described by a series of talking heads including Bill Moyers, Sting, Paul Williams, Quincy Jones, Richard Carpenter and many others. In any case, you'll probably come away from Herb Alpert Is… not only admiring the man but wishing you were him.

Available in theaters and VOD
Distributor: Abramorama
Director/screenwriter: John Scheinfeld
Producers: John Scheinfeld, Dave Harding, Peter S. Lynch II
Director of photography: Tristan Whitman
Editor: Peter S. Lynch II

113 min.