In Cameron Crowe’s iconic music flick Almost Famous, we follow a 15-year-old teenage journalist as he vies to get his first cover story for Rolling Stone. He follows on tour with one of his favorite bands and tries to gain confidence from the shaggy-haired hipster Asian kid, complete with John Lennon glasses, bell bottoms and a floral open-collared shirt, who is his editor at Rolling Stone.
That man is Ben Fong-Torres, and upon first look, seeing an Asian American kid writing bylines and headlines in the early heyday of Rolling Stone comes as quite a shock.
Young Ben Fong-Torres, the American-born son of Chinese immigrants (who took on a Filipino surname in order for his family to come to America and avoid the Chinese Exclusion Act), was Rolling Stone‘s legendary writer and first music editor in the late 60s and 70s.
Growing up in Oakland Chinatown, Ben was at the epicenter of some of America’s most revolutionary cultural and societal moments. Interviewing legends like Bob Dylan, Carlos Santana, Paul McCartney, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, among others, Ben’s love for music and writing gave him access to legends like no other, which shaped how we see and read American culture today.
In Suzanne Kai’s first feature film debut Like A Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres, we are given an intimate, heartfelt, and incredibly entertaining portrait of the life of Ben. From his Chinese American upbringing, to losing his brother in a Chinatown gang war, to becoming a prolific writer, journalist and radio DJ since his early days at San Francisco State University, Ben feels like one of our own.
And he is. The documentary hits home in more ways than one for me; from its obvious documentation of an Asian American rock journalist whose interviews on some of music’s best legends have shaped Rolling Stone into what it is today; from being an Asian American kid growing up in white America, navigating the desire to follow your passion for music and writing; to Ben’s character and bravado when it comes to approaching his work and his interviews (it may have been easy to geek out over Paul McCartney, but there’s a part of you that arrives to “do the work” and “keep it professional”). Ben’s prolific writing and easy rapport with his subjects show.
But beside all the glitz and glam that Ben has been able to witness in his rock-and-roll life (being the sort of music documentarian that he is), his love and dedication to his family and culture is prevalent.
Throughout his career as a premiere rock-and-roll journalist at Rolling Stone, he covered the 1960s Counterculture and Civil Rights movements for SFSU; he contributed to his city’s Chinese-American newspaper and later, the San Francisco Chronicle.
What became very apparent to me was how the music of the time was so directly linked to the revolutionary culture and spirit of the time. The fight for our rights; peace and love; fighting the barriers between blacks and whites; white people stealing black music and culture (Marvin Gaye commenting on Elvis Presley; Mick Jagger taking Tina Turner’s dance moves). It was all a direct response and commentary to that culture — and Ben was at the heart of it, documenting it all.
“Tell me more,” a response Ben so commonly used with his subjects, allowed these legends to open up, speak up, and have a platform where they could feel comfortable to share their story, no fluff.
In watching this documentary, we want Ben to “tell us more” — about his subjects, his family, the culture, the time, the access he had and living in the sixties — and Kai actually lets us see Ben do just that.
Like A Rolling Stone is a beautiful documentary that so intimately shows one of the most iconic, unseen rock stars of our generation. The film as a whole is immersive, interesting and entertaining. With exclusive interviews from Cameron Crowe, Annie Leibovitz (his photography partner at Rolling Stone), as well as intimate interview clips from Elton John, Jim Morrison, Ray Charles, Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, and the late-Ray Manzarek of The Doors, the film is so expertly done. It weaves a story of Chinese American immigration into the vibrant counterculture of the sixties. And for any music fan, lover, journalist, or young Asian American/POC who never believed or saw themselves reflected back in media, this is a must-see.
The film is set to play for one-week only at Laemmle Monica Film Center in Santa Monica, CA starting November 26, 2021.
The lights, the crowds, the music! Ben Fong-Torres covered it all at Rolling Stone as its legendary writer and first music editor. Ben’s life is an epic sweep through the world of rock and roll. The American-born son of Chinese immigrants, Ben grew up in Chinatown with only a radio to the outside world. Driven by a passion for music and writing, his groundbreaking work helped define American culture. He became a voice of a generation which changed America forever.
the publicity team for Like a Rolling Stone just sent me your article. I’m writing to thank you for writing it and spreading the word about the film. It took 11 years–probably half your life time–and I’m just glad it’s finished.
Your thoughtful, observant and well-written piece is very much appreciated. I wish you well with all your work.
And if you’re open to a couple of factual corrections, just let me know.
Ben F-T in SF