“Herb Alpert is… “ a pretty good documentary tracing the life and career of an introverted East Los Angeles kid who grew up to be the trumpet-playing leader of a band that for a while in the 1960s were arguably the biggest in the world, even outselling the Beatles for a spell. This is a story well worth telling, especially since the genial and low-key Alpert is still here to tell a lot of it himself. He is seen here in his early 80s, painting, sculpting, and running his charitable foundations—and still performing with his wife Lani Hall. Herb’s story is an encouraging tale of a creative life well-lived, in sharp relief to our age of trivialized Tik-Tok “stardom.”
Director John Scheinfeld takes the viewer on a compact trip thru Alpert’s early years as he takes up the trumpet in high school, spends a couple of years in the USC marching band and begins his professional career as a vocalist on a few L.A.-area novelty hits. Unsure of his future direction, he takes a break in Tijuana, and spends a day in the city’s traditional bullring stadium. He comes up with the idea for “The Lonely Bull,” a beautifully moody piece of music he records with his new band dubbed the Tijuana Brass. The single hit #6 on Billboard and its indelible melody still feels like a timestamp of the early Sixties.
It’s probably for the good that the Herb Alpert and Co. got famous when they did. The group’s Mexican-American branding would be seen today in some corners as “cultural appropriation” much like some people now bemoan how surfing has robbed native Hawaiians of an important part of their heritage (really). Nobody in the band was Chicano (Herb’s parents were Eastern European immigrants), with members coming from as far afield as Staten Island and Newark, NJ. Back then, of course, the band’s bolero jackets and hits like “South of the Border” and “Tijuana Taxi” were just great fun. Their light and lively records were as an essential an ingredient to the success of a pre-Boomer party as was the club soda in a Tom Collins cocktail.
Alpert went back to singing for his #1 1968 solo hit “This Guy’s in Love With You.” The film also posits that the period following was a low point in his life personally We are shown a great archival interview on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, where he hesitantly questions his own happiness. This was around the time of the divorce from his first wife, while the fortunes of the Tijuana Brass were taking a dip during the ascendancy of rock music (Alpert even stopped playing for a few years and had to “relearn” the trumpet). Better times were to come with his subsequent marriage to Brasil ’66 vocalist Lani Hall and the founding of A&M Records with music mogul Jerry Moss. A&M would be a major player for the next two times, the two men personally shepherding the careers of such household names as Cat Stevens, Joe Cocker, the Carpenters, the Police, Janet Jackson and the Go-Gos.
Interspersed among all the old gratifying film clips and photos of his heyday, are equally welcomed shots of the self-effacing and ever-active Alpert today—whether he’s painting or sculpting in his studio, attending an event at one of his many arts and music academies or performing with his wife. So while “Herb Alpert Is…” may run a little long at two hours (I would have cut out the extraneous testimonials from the likes of Sting and Billy Bob Thornton) there is a lot of inspiring stuff here to wow his many fans and maybe convince some of the younger folk that the successful life of a creative is based on running a marathon and not a 100-meter dash.