You might have noticed that we’re watching movies at home these days. Even new movies. Movies up to the level of Disney’s Mulan.
So here’s a new movie we can watch Friday: Herb Alpert Is, a bio-documentary on the trumpet player who most famously led the Tijuana Brass back in the mid-1960s.
If you care even marginally about popular music that made you feel good 55 years ago and can make you feel just as good today, budget two hours for this one.
Herb Alpert Is can be seen through Video On Demand, which means on Amazon, iTunes and other streaming platforms. You do have to pay for it, and you do have to make your own popcorn. It’s worth it.
Alpert came on the scene looking like, frankly, a Mexican novelty act. The Tijuana Brass wore those sharp, short jackets and sometimes the very tall hats. As the name suggests, they played mostly brass instruments, which could produce the kind of lively music that makes you want to get up and march around the room.
But the Tijuana Brass, and Alpert himself, weren’t just trying to liven up a parade.
Nor, contrary to their appearance, were they an Americanized mariachi band.
Alpert came up as a jazz player, and he fused jazz with the Mexican-derived brass to create something all his own, in styles from dance tunes to wistful ballads like “The Lonely Bull.” Miles Davis, no slouch in the music game, once remarked that after three notes, you knew it was Herb Alpert music.
Alpert himself, who at the age of 82 does much of the narration here himself, recalls that Davis comment by saying that it was such a great promotional boost he wanted to give Miles a kiss.
At that point in Davis’s life, that probably wouldn’t have been a good move. The point is still taken.
Herb Alpert Is notes that at the height of his popularity, in 1965–66, Alpert sold more albums than the Beatles. Different demo, but again, point taken.
Naturally there’s a segment, brief but wonderful, on Alpert’s most famous album and one of the most famous album covers ever.
Whipped Cream and Other Delights pictured a sultry young woman, seated and apparently dressed only in whipped cream. Alpert says here that it was actually shaving cream, but that inconvenient fact will never diminish the album cover’s appeal to, let’s say, the male demographic.
Billy Bob Thornton, one of the admiring commentators here, recalls sneaking into his mother’s room just to stare at Whipped Cream. In that recollection, he speaks for others.
Herb Alpert Is features a generous sampling of musical clips, many from the Tijuana Brass era, and they’re the perfect reminder of why people still listen to his music today.
As has been the case with more than one artist over the years, Alpert himself has more ambivalent reflections on his time as a pop culture icon.
At the peak of his pop fame, he says, he was rich, successful and miserable.
He largely stepped away from music for several years, soon after scoring an unexpected best-seller as a vocalist with “This Guy’s In Love (With You).”
He returned to music, he says, when it became fun to play again. He tried a variety of different styles through subsequent years, often teaming up with fellow artists like Hugh Masakela. He still picks up the trumpet today.
Herb Alpert Is also notes the other parts of his career, like cofounding A&M Records with Jerry Moss and turning their small independent into a significant player with artists like the Carpenters.
The label succeeded, Alpert and Richard Carpenter both say, because an independent didn’t have to run its plans through layers of corporate management. It could operate on instinct, and while its decisions didn’t all work out, they enabled A&M to record artists as important and seemingly incongruous as Phil Ochs.
In any case, Alpert today seems as sharp as ever and even happier. He attributes this to his second wife Lani, and a significant chunk of Herb Alpert Is dwells on their love story. It’s a little sentimental, but as Paul McCartney once rhetorically asked, “What’s wrong with that, I’d like to know.”
Herb Alpert Is is not an expose. It was built to admire its subject and it does. His life was rich and diverse enough that it could probably be seen from other angles as well, but this feels like a solid one.