Herb Alpert Is…
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes
Stars: Herb Alpert, Sting, Billy Bob Thornton, Lani Hall, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez
Director: John Scheinfeld
In Theaters and on Video On Demand
It’s always a good feeling when a movie offers reassurance that you are, despite your darkest suspicions, absolutely normal. That’s how I felt while watching the new documentary about Herb Alpert, the now-84-year-old trumpeter who revolutionized popular music in the 1960s with his Tijuana Brass.
The affirming moment comes about a half-hour into the film, at the point where Alpert releases his 1965 record Whipped Cream and Other Delights, the album that featured on its cover model Dolores Erickson wearing nothing but a mound of whipped cream. She was, as they say, quite something.
“I was obsessed with that woman,” says Police frontman Sting, who was an adolescent at the time.
“I actually had guilt,” confesses Billy Bob Thornton. “I would sneak into my mom’s room and look at the cover of that album when she was in the kitchen.”
And no, it does nothing to dim my fevered recollections of that time when, in the film, Alpert reveals that the model was covered not with dessert topping, but shaving cream.
The music was pretty good, too. I would defy anyone, no matter their age or musical inclinations, to sit through Herb Alpert Is… and resist tapping their toes, humming along, or even rising to their feet for a dance or two. “The Lonely Bull,” “Tijuana Taxi,” “Taste of Honey,” “This Guy’s in Love With You,” along with dozens more Alpert instant standards, jockey for position in a soundtrack that is so infectious at times you wish everyone would stop talking (even when the talking heads include the likes of Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Sergio Mendez, Quest Love, and Bill Moyers).
Still, in the hands of director John Scheinfeld (The Happy Days of Gary Marshall, Who is Harry Nilsson?) the story of Herb Alpert is a lot more than a snappy greatest hits collection; it’s a deep dive into the agonies and ecstasies that drive profoundly creative people like Alpert — a guy who not only recorded some of the 20th century’s most memorable music, but also made his mark in the fields of painting and sculpture.
Narrating his own story, Alpert is an affable, if somewhat selective guide. For reasons known only to him, he glosses over the early days of Tijuana Brass, essentially ignoring the rather remarkable fact that the first TJB records consisted primarily of Alpert alone, recording in his garage, relentlessly overdubbing his own trumpet solos to create the illusion of a full band. Only when audiences began demanding live performances did he hire a team of crack studio musicians to play with him.
Besides his music wizardry, Alpert also possessed a keen nose for talent, and along with his partner Jerry Moss (the “M” in their label, A&M Records) he released albums by a Who’s Who of ’70s and ’80s legends including Carole King, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Janet Jackson and Chuck Mangione. Many of A&M’s titles still reside on the list of best-selling albums of all time.
Still, Alpert insists, there was a dark side to his fairy tale.
“I’m famous, I’m rich,” he recalls thinking at the height of his fame. “But I’m miserable.”
Admittedly, it’s hard to really feel bad for a guy whose chief problem is he’s too successful. Still, a gallery of archive footage does seem to reveal a man who pastes on his dimpled smile while cranking it up onstage, but whose demeanor crashes the moment the curtain closes.
He ultimately found happiness sharing his success — with his clearly adoring wife, singer Lani Hall, and a growing circle of charitable groups. Aside from the soundtrack you never want to stop, Herb Alpert Is… becomes most satisfying in its coda, exploring the musician’s latter-day obsession with promoting arts in America’s schools. Reading in a newspaper that Harlem’s storied School of the Arts was going under due to a lack of funding, he rode to the rescue with a half-million-dollar grant — just one installment in the more than $150 million he’s donated to non-profits over the years.
Here the camera follows Alpert through the halls of the Harlem campus, stopping in classrooms to hear students feel their way through compositions classical, jazz, and pop.
To these kids, he’s a nice old man who has taken an interest in their aspirations. To the rest of us, Herb Alpert emerges as a reminder of our youthful passions — and our responsibility to help today’s kids realize theirs.
You can do that, Herb Alpert Is… says — even if you haven’t sold 72 million records.
Featured image: Still from the documentary Herb Alpert Is…(Abramorama)