Like A Rolling Stone excels in conveying a vivid sense of the flesh-and-blood human behind the venerated byline.
Ben Fong-Torres, the celebrated music journalist profiled in Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres, has a personal website whose tagline reads, “Almost Famous Since 1969.” This, of course, references Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film Almost Famous, inspired by Crowe’s days as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone. Fong-Torres, who was then Crowe’s editor, is a very minor character in Crowe’s film, but here he gets to take center stage. Fong-Torres was a writer and editor at Rolling Stone from 1968 through 1981, and his profile and interview subjects, as well as some of the figures who appear in the film, are a veritable roll call of rock legends: Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jim Morrison, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, The Grateful Dead, and, of course, The Rolling Stones. Unlike many of the musicians he interviewed, and some of his Rolling Stone colleagues, Fong-Torres didn’t get caught up in the hedonistic behavior of those in the counterculture around him. Instead, he diligently concentrated on his work, which included perfecting the form of the magazine celebrity profile. Simply put, in comparison to his interviewees, Fong-Torres comes across as a bit of a square. And because Kai opts to present her material in a similarly square fashion, as a standard doc package of interviews and archival footage, she often struggles to make her film a truly compelling portrait of its subject.
However, the strongest aspects of the documentary come not so much from the rock stories but in the way Kai posits Fong-Torres’ story as a specifically Chinese-American one. More specifically, Kai puts her subject’s work in the context of San Francisco’s Chinatown community, in which he was an active participant, as a volunteer editor of East West, a local bilingual Chinatown newspaper, in addition to his duties at Rolling Stone. One of the more interesting biographical tidbits revealed in the film concerns the origin of Fong-Torres’ unusual hyphenated family name, which was a direct result of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the racially restrictive U.S. immigration policy that was still in effect when his father emigrated from China. His father was forced to basically scam his way into the country by using a fake passport from the Philippines and adopting “Torres” as a family name. Fong-Torres’ family settled in Oakland’s Chinatown, where they ran a restaurant, and he subsequently went to college in San Francisco, where he began writing for the fledgling Rolling Stone magazine just a couple of years after he graduated.
The film makes very clear that the strong emotional ties Fong-Torres forged with his family, and later the larger Chinese-American community around him, gave him the strength and confidence to navigate the racism he experienced in his youth, as well as a music industry and culture industry where there were very few people who looked like him in his profession, compelling him to forge a career path with virtually no role models to look to. Fong-Torres was remarkably successful, building a formidable reputation as many musicians’ go-to interviewer. Indeed, he was so successful, and so well-liked by almost everyone, that his life story appears almost absurdly drama-free. That is, until a family tragedy occurs that hits in the film like a lightning bolt, a tragedy directly related to Fong-Torres’ Chinatown community reportage. Nevertheless, Fong-Torres overcame this tragedy as well, retaining the affable, even-keeled, wry demeanor he displays in the film, highlighting its most valuable purpose: conveying a vivid sense of the flesh-and-blood human behind the venerated byline.
You can currently stream Suzanne Joe Koi’s Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben-Fong Torres on Netflix.
Originally published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.