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Like a Rolling Stone Explores the Life of Rock Writer Ben Fong-Torres

The documentary about 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.

Tribeca 2021

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres Review

Most moviegoers below a certain age likely known Ben Fong-Torres as the Rolling Stone editor who gives William his first assignment at the magazine and occasionally calls in asking for updates. 

But beyond that brief brush with movies, Fong-Torres was one of the most important rock writers of the mid-20th century, interviewing a virtual who’s who of major performers in the 1960s and ’70s, and serving as a major part of Rolling Stone’s counterculture heyday. Beyond that, Fong-Torres has lived a long, colorful, and only-in-America life. 

Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres is a documentary about the writer, which debuted June 13 at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, and is showing as part of the Documentary Competition. There’s no word on a wide release date.

The documentary, directed by Suzanne Joe Kai, doesn’t really reinvent the wheel when it comes to rock docs, nor does it do much, in particular, to challenge any conventional wisdom about the primacy of boomer rock music. Nor does it do much to raise that whole taboo, specifically raised in Almost Famous, against rock writers making friends with rock stars. 

All that said, Like a Rolling Stone is a fascinating documentary about a fascinating man. 

The now 76-year-old Fong-Torres is interviewed throughout, and the film looks back on his life through audiotapes — some collected from ancient eight-track tapes — of his old interviews, archival footage, and the writer’s own stories. We also see more recent footage of Fong-Torres hanging out with such long-ago interview subjects as Elton John.  Other famous interviewees include Steve Martin, Annie Liebovitz, and Fong-Torres’ onetime employee-turned-Almost Famous director Cameron Crowe. 

The title comes not only from the name of his magazine but also because Fong-Torres is shown doing an on-stage impression of Bob singing the titular song. 

We see and hear excerpts of a lot of Fong-Torres’ memorable journalism, which helped bring the likes of Tina Turner to prominence. Fong-Torres one of the few, if not the only, Asian-Americans in rock journalism at the time. 

Perhaps even more fascinating than the music reminiscence is Fong-Torres’ family story. The writers’ contemporaries had often wondered about the ethnic background of his surname, with many long assumed he was Filipino. But it turns out Fong-Torres’ father was a Chinese immigrant who posed as Filipino when he came to the U.S., to get around the Chinese Exclusion Act. 

Fong-Torres later got his start in journalism writing for the Asian-American press in his native Bay Area, and his brother was tragically murdered in the early 1970s, in a murder that remains unsolved to this day. 

As is far from rare in stories about boomer culture, we also hear about how it all ended. In this case, it was when Rolling Stone switched coasts in 1977, relocating from San Francisco to New York. Fong-Torres stayed behind for a couple of years, as something of a West Coast bureau chief, although it wasn’t the same thing, and soon after he left, going on to write a series of acclaimed books. 

Last year’s documentary about Creem magazine, Creem: America’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll Magazine, sought to position Creem as a rejection of all that Rolling Stone represented, and indeed, that doc (and magazine) also had a connection with Almost Famous. It’s also worth noting that Rolling Stone is now decades removed from its former power and influence, and I can’t even remember the last time they published a relevant piece of music journalism or criticism. 

But if you’re nostalgic for the good old days of Rolling Stone- even the time long before Almost Famous– you’re likely to enjoy Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres. 

  • Stephen Silver

The Tribeca Film Festival runs June 9-20. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.

Written By

Stephen Silver is a journalist and film critic based in the Philadelphia area. He is the co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle and a Rotten Tomatoes-listed critic since 2008, and his work has appeared in New York Press, Philly Voice, The Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Tablet, The Times of Israel, and In 2009, he became the first American journalist to interview both a sitting FCC chairman and a sitting host of "Jeopardy" on the same day.

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