HERB ALPERT IS … (2020, doc)

October 1, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Herb Alpert’s music was played frequently in my home as I was growing up, so I became a fan early on. His impact on the music industry seems not to be celebrated or remembered today the way it should, and documentarian John Scheinfeld seeks to change that with this thorough and detailed look at the man and his career. By the time the end credits roll, we are in awe of not just the musical accomplishments, but also the humanity of Herb Alpert.

The film’s opening sequence shows Alpert working the canvas with a brush. For those who know him only as a trumpet player, this might catch you off guard. In fact, Alpert is quite an accomplished abstract painter, sculptor, musician, producer, businessman, and philanthropist. He’s also consistently described as “humble”, “gracious”, and “kind”. Such is the Herb Alpert we come to know during this nearly two hour profile.

An exploration of his life includes a timeline of events accompanied by interviews with those who know him well: songwriter and composer Paul Williams, Sting, QuestLove, Producer Lou Adler, Burt Bachrach, and journalist Bill Moyers. Additionally, we hear directly from Herb (now 85 years old) and his wife of nearly 50 years, singer Lani Hall. In fact, Ms. Hall-Alpert serves up one of the most insightful descriptions of her husband when she says, “He doesn’t work creatively. He lives creatively.”

Alpert was a working musician from an early age, and things really took off for him after he and Jerry Moss co-founded A&M Records (Alpert & Moss) in 1962. He explains his approach as a record label executive: he listens with his soul, and the music must touch him. That approach made A&M hugely successful, signing such popular and talented acts as Cat Stevens, Carole King, The Carpenters, Peter Frampton, Quincy Jones, Janet Jackson, and The Police, among others.

Beyond that gut instinct, Alpert’s career as a musician was remarkable. He won 9 Grammy’s, had 15 Gold and 14 Platinum albums, and sold over 72 million records. We learn that his Tijuana Brass band outsold the Beatles two to one in 1966, and of course we get to hear such megahits as “The Lonely Bull” (1962), “A Taste of Honey” (1965), “Tijuana Taxi” (1965), “This Guy’s in Love with You” (1968), and “Rise” (1979). We see clips of the band on The Andy Williams Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, as well as some of their early music videos.

Director Scheinfeld has made a nice career of profiling talented folks like: John Coltrane, Harry Nilsson, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Bette Midler, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and the Marx Brothers. However, I’m not sure any of his subjects have had the many talents and passions of Herb Alpert. We learn of his commitment to making a positive impact on the world each and every day, and his work as a philanthropist includes resurrecting the Harlem School of Arts, and inspiring those students to reach new heights.

The sale of A&M Records in 1990 to Polygram for $500 million combined with his successful music career has allowed Alpert to continue with his philanthropic pursuits, yet he remains one of the most humble superstars you’ll ever find. In an early sequence, he jokes about sneaking maple syrup into his oatmeal – he says it’s “cheating” his strict diet. We see some early home movies, and Alpert revisits both his childhood school and home, which contrasts with his own show at an elite art gallery. Alpert recounts stories involving Sonny Bono and the great Sam Cooke, and goes back to the old campus of A&M Records (once a movie studio where Charlie Chaplin worked), now the home for the Jim Henson Company.

I’d be remiss in not mentioning (and thanking) Herb Alpert for the greatest album cover of all time: “Whipped Cream and Other Delights”, a visual favorite of so many throughout the years. Herb Alpert had his music played by the Apollo VIII crew, and he recalls with pride that the great Miles Davis once remarked, “You hear 3 notes and you know it’s Herb Alpert.” Despite all the brilliance he’s displayed in his life, Herb is noted for always being “humble and gracious” … and he’s still “the coolest guy in the room”. Not many can supply the soundtrack to their own life story! The film ends with Alpert himself saying he is “very grateful”, and we can only hope he knows that we are the grateful ones.

In theaters and VOD October 2, 2020

watch the trailer

 
 

THE WRECKING CREW (doc, 2008/2015)

March 15, 2015

wrecking crew Greetings again from the darkness. The music business has always been a bit of a mystery – not just to the average record buyer, but even to those within the industry. History is filled with singers, band members, and songwriters missing out on the pot of gold due to slick legal maneuvering from some less-than-upstanding agent, producer or label. This documentary details the prolific recordings from a core group of studio musicians responsible for the sounds heard as rock and roll music exploded on the scene … their stellar performances marketed to the public as the work of popular bands.

Lest you think this is limited to an obscure genre or style of music, the two dozen (or so) musicians known as The Wrecking Crew were responsible for the album music for such groups and performers as The Beach Boys, Frank Sinatra, The Righteous Brothers, Elvis Presley, The Mamas and the Papas, Sonny and Cher, Sam Cooke, The Byrds, and The Monkees. And we can’t leave out Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” which dominated the charts for years. Director Denny Tedesco set out to make a documentary short about his father, guitarist extraordinaire Tommy Tedesco, but quickly realized the story was much bigger than just his dad.

In addition to the very talented (and funny) Tedesco, we get interviews with such talented musicians as Hal Blaine, Earl Palmer, Don Randi, Al Casey, Plas Johnson (The Pink Panther sax soloist), Carol Kaye, and Bill Pittman. There is also insight from producers Lou Adler and Snuff Garrett, American Bandstand’s Dick Clark, songwriter Jimmy Webb, plus icon Herb Alpert. Micky Dolenz and Peter Tork explain the business rationale in having the professionals take care of the recordings, while Roger McGuinn spills the beans that other members of The Byrds (including David Crosby) were pretty miffed at the process.

The personal importance of telling this story is quite obvious in the work of the director, and is especially clear in the segments featuring his father. In addition to the popular music he was involved with, the senior Tedesco’s work is heard in such well-known TV themes as “Bonanza“, “MASH“, “Batman“, and “The Twilight Zone” … plus many movie scores. Archival footage is available for Q&A roundtables and some of the seminar work Tedesco did in the later stages of his career (he passed away in 1997). There is also footage of Phil Spector working in the studio, and some audio from Frank Sinatra as he works on recording, and early Brian Wilson creating the magic of Pet Sounds with the Wrecking Crew.

Glen Campbell and Leon Russell are the two big breakout performers from this group of studio musicians and both speak so highly of these unpublicized artists. Their interviews, and that of Dick Clark, highlight the confusion of timeline in the making of the film. It began making festival rounds in 2008 before running the age old issue of “musical rights” brought distribution to a screeching halt. So now, in 2015, the film is finally getting some theatre time, and with it comes the recognition and appreciation that is long overdue for the members of this very secret club … few of whom seem to hold any type of grudge. They were just happy to make a living doing what they love.

This film instantly becomes one of four documentaries highly recommended for those who want to better understand the music biz. Group it with Standing in the Shadows of Motown (2002), Muscle Shoals (2013), and Oscar winner Twenty Feet from Stardom (2013) to form an 8 hour education and history of popular music over the past three generations.

**NOTE: Kent Hartman released a book entitled “The Wrecking Crew” that provides additional detail; however, it is not affiliated with Denny Tedesco’s film.

watch the trailer: