Treasure Hunting

The filmmakers behind new documentaries on American musicians Herb Alpert and Frank Zappa talk to Gemma Gracewood about mining for gold in the archives of music history.

“We’re living in a very dark time,” says filmmaker John Scheinfeld down the line from Los Angeles. “Certainly, the virus has contributed to that, but even before the virus there was a lot of darkness sweeping across our countries, politically and socially. I really wanted to make something that was positive and uplifting and inspiring and nostalgic and fun.”

He’s certainly done that. Herb Alpert Is… is infectiously jaunty, thanks enormously to Alpert’s sexy, cosmopolitan 1960s hits like ‘The Lonely Bull’, ‘Spanish Flea’ and ‘A Taste of Honey’ (you’ve probably heard them, even if you don’t recognize their names). The latest film from a documentarian who has covered musicians such as John Coltrane, John Lennon and Harry Nilsson, Herb Alpert Is… touches on almost every corner of the trumpeter’s life, including his unlikely 1979 instrumental disco chart-topper ‘Rise’ (later sampled by Notorious BIG), and his days as an independent music mogul, partnering with Jerry Moss in A&M Records.

Musician Herb Alpert.
Musician Herb Alpert.

In copious amounts of archive footage, Alpert is pin-up handsome, endlessly quotable. The soundtrack drips with his sophisticated rhythms, and there are the requisite famous commentators, including Sting, Questlove and Billy Bob Thornton (who recalls getting horny for the Whipped Cream & Other Delights album cover). But the film’s best asset is Herb himself, alive and well, painting, sculpting, performing with his wife, Lani Hall (of Sérgio Mendes and Brasil ’66), and exercising his generous philanthropy.

For all his saucy musicianship and outsized success—not explored in detail here is the cultural appropriation of Mariachi-style music by a white Californian—Alpert is a “grounded, warm and sensitive” introvert, says Scheinfeld. A fascinating turning point in the film involves a never-before-seen interview with Alpert on a Malibu clifftop. Scheinfeld found the interview in a pile of two-inch reels containing unused out-takes from a 1960s television special. “It was just one of those electric moments. Here it is, nobody knew it existed, and you could absolutely see Herb struggling to find the words, the emotional distress that he is in.”

Scheinfeld adds: “One of the things that I love so much about what I do is finding footage that no one else has seen before. Treasure-hunting. Herb is a saver. He had saved everything: photos, film, video, newspaper articles. Anything we could have possibly needed to tell his story was all in his vault.”

Musician Frank Zappa.
Musician Frank Zappa.

Bill and Ted star and documentary filmmaker Alex Winter struck archival gold, too, in his long journey to bring the story of experimental music legend Frank Zappa to the screen. Though this is Winter’s first ‘artist biography’, it’s clearly made by somebody who grew up around artists, and has a nerd’s focus on detail (his previous documentaries explore the deep web, blockchain, Napster, the Panama papers and more). Zappa is impressive in its scope, and generous in its shape, to the point where a working knowledge of the great experimental composer is not needed.

“Zappa was compelling to me because he was this incredible artist who was very, very engaged with his times,” Winter says. “He had a lot of facets to his nature, some of which seemed to be in complete collision with each other, and that interested me greatly.”

Like Alpert, Zappa was a saver of things. Once Winter and his producer Glen Zipper had Frank’s widow, Gail Zappa, on side, the doors to the family archives were opened wide. But the first part of the filmmaking process was to preserve that material, which required a Kickstarter campaign. Then it was a matter of building a story that would suit the non-conformist, highly improvisational composer. “I wasn’t interested in telling a conventional story because he’s such an unconventional person,” says Winter. “[Editor] Mike Nichols and I made a commitment at the beginning to create an Act One that would be aggressive enough to take you in whatever direction we wanted to take the film after that.”

Zappa is a beautifully assembled and superbly told story about a man in conflict with himself and the times. A highlight is Bruce Bickford’s stop-motion animation, and the few gaps not filled by rich archive material are handled by several well-chosen interviewees—one of Winter’s favorite parts of filmmaking: “I’ve always bristled about this new world we’re in right now where people are disparaging field interviews, which they call ‘talking heads’ for some reason. To me it’s so incredibly disrespectful to your subjects and to the whole idea of subject portraiture. I love shooting portraits of people. I honestly could just make docs of just one person talking to camera after another and be very happy doing that.”

To get to the heart of his subject, Scheinfled employs a cute device with his guests, one which gives his film its title. Scheinfeld asks them to complete the sentence “Herb Alpert is…”, explaining “the thing that really struck me when I started to look into Herb’s story is that it’s much deeper, richer and more interesting than simply the Tijuana Brass hits of the 1960s.

“What I really saw was a renaissance man who has achieved success on his own terms on many levels. He is many things to many different people. One can see him as a performer, as an entrepreneur, as a discoverer of talent, as a sculptor and artist, and there are probably others as well.”

Asked for their favorite music documentaries, Winter readily offers Robert Frank’s The Rolling Stones: Cocksucker Blues, of which only bootleg copies are available. “That was one of the things that made me really wanna try doing this kind of storytelling—where the filmmaker is kind of there, but not becoming an intrusive part of the storytelling, but you can’t have the storytelling without it.”

Scheinfeld, however, won’t comment on other music documentaries, “because I’m a very tough audience”. He recalls instead the documentary that got him interested in making documentaries: Point of Order (1964, directed by Emile de Antonio). “It was all about the American political landscape during the McCarthy era in the 1960s. It made a very interesting choice to just have no narrator, but to let the events from Congressional hearings in Washington play out to tell a story. It was really fascinating and made me want to look at more documentaries.”

“The power of films,” Scheinfeld adds, “is not only to entertain us and help us escape from daily life—and heaven knows with Covid-19 we all need to do that—but I think they can also inspire us to be better people, to be better artists, to do something to make the world a better place… without sounding too pretentious!”

Herb Alpert Is…’ is available in virtual cinemas and on VOD now. ‘Zappa’ is coming to select US theaters and on-demand this Thanksgiving weekend.

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