Herb Alpert Is… Review: Melted Butter

Nostalgic music doc will delight fans of the famous trumpeter

4 mins read

Herb Alpert Is…
(USA, 113 min.)
Dir. John Scheinfeld

Baby Boomer nostalgia turns the dial up to 11 in Herb Alpert Is… This celebratory portrait of the famed trumpeter sits comfortably with the seemingly endless cavalcade of music docs about the greatest hits from the 1960s and ’70s. Director John Scheinfeld deserves ample credit for delivering a thorough overview of Alpert’s career. The film assembles a who’s who of music icons and Alpert’s peers to pay tribute to a man who outsold the Beatles in 1966 and reinvented himself in unexpected ways. Whether one knows every Alpert song by heart, or only recognises Alpert through a cue of “Little Spanish Flea” from The SimpsonsHerb Alpert Is… covers all the high notes in a career full of hits.

The film takes a cue from Ron Mann’s Altman by asking interviewees a shared question. Where Mann had participants define the term “Altmanesque” as an entry point to discussing director Robert Altman’s career, Scheinfeld has interviewees finish the sentence “Herb Albert is…” The answers are all celebratory, but the only especially memorable response comes from Billy Bob Thornton, who says that Herb Alpert is “butter.”

Fans of Alpert will love the extended musical sequences and views inside the star’s life. Scheinfeld covers much of Alpert’s professional career from his early collaborations with Lou Adler to his days recording solo as Dore Alpert. The latter proves one of the more insightful chapters of the doc as Alpert recalls the sterile environment of corporate recording studios that stifled his creativity. Yet as the doc progresses through his days with the Tijuana Brass, and chronicles his work with A&M records, which he founded with Jerry Moss in 1962, Scheinfeld illustrates how Alpert found a comfortable groove with the corporate world while nurturing new artists. The film breezes through moments of reinvention as Alpert shifted shaped and changed tune quicker than Madonna does now, adapting with the times and finding new audiences.

Alpert changes tunes so much that he ends his career as a visual artist. The doc looks at his modest success making sculptures, which resemble children’s toys that have been run through a microwave oven, but have helped him reached new fans nevertheless. “Herb Alpert is melted butter,” perhaps.

While melted butter offers comforting warmth and flavour, it also has little nourishment atop a barrel of popcorn. One really needs to love the material, although anyone who loves the salty trumpeter will inevitably adore the retrospective. For non-fans, Herb Alpert is awkwardly paced with repetitive sequences, redundant interviews, and has a running time that overstays its welcome by 30 minutes. It’s a familiar journey that toasts its subject with ample bubbly. Scheinfled boasts a prolific résumé with oodles of docs about music icons—in some years, he cranks out anywhere from three to eight rockumentaries—and Herb Alpert Is…, for better or for worse, plays like a well-rehearsed recipe. Herb Alpert is…formulaic?

Herb Alpert Is… is now streaming via Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema.

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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