8mm Film Review: “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres”

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres
Ben Fong-Torres, Annie Liebovitz, and Cameron Crowe. Written, directed, and produced by Suzanne Joe Kai.

“Ben was in the middle of this revolution from the get-go and it all came together in the music.” David Felton, writer, The Rolling Stone

Photo credit: Louis de la Torre

How does it feel to be on your own?

The Rolling Stone was once an important counter-culture magazine covering music, culture, and politics. Based in San Francisco, it showed up at Big Brother and the Holding Company concerts as well as at Berkeley marches, covering it all with a middle finger pointed right at the establishment.

From the publication’s beginning, Ben Fong-Torres was right in the middle of it. The son of immigrant restaurant workers in Chinatown had edited his high school and college papers. His serious approach to music, reporting, and the craft of writing was the early, important asset the magazine needed in connecting artists with their audience.

Photo courtesy of StudioLA

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres traces the life and career of the esteemed music journalist, with input from such rock and roll royalty as Bob Weir (of the Grateful Dead), Ray Manzarek (of the Doors), Steve Martin, Elton John, and Carlos Santana, plus photographer Annie Liebovitz and writer-filmmaker Cameron Crowe.

I’ve finally found my future lies beyond the yellow brick road

With apparently complete access to Fong-Torres and his associates, writer-director-producer Suzanne Joe Kai deftly balances a close examination of a career with the story of a man whose hyphenated last name, he explains, came from the identifying papers his father acquired in order to gain entry to the United States. It had been a bit easier for a Filipino man to get into the country than for a Chinese man.

If you love the music of the 60s and 70s, you will be fascinated by this story. Yet even if you don’t, you’ll appreciate the way music bridges one Chinese American with the people and politics of his country.

Photo courtesy of StudioLA

For a short time while he was a teen, Fong-Torres moved with his family to Amarillo, Texas, where he was the only Asian kid in school. “My classmates in Texas invited me to join them for root beer floats after school and to listen to rock and roll and R&B on the jukebox,” he says. “Inside that jukebox there were no racial borders, no segregation. Rock and roll was an equalizer, and for me it was more than a way to have fun or feel like part of the crowd. It was a way for me to feel Americanized.”

Weir highlights the connection, saying, “When he was first starting out with the Rolling Stone, we were the punk of our generation, and we hung together, so if Ben was writing something, I was inclined to go with it just ‘cause he was coming from where we were coming from.”

Fong-Torres’s assistant at the Rolling Stone says, “The (Jefferson) Airplane, the Grateful Dead absolutely would not talk to anyone but Ben.”

Lately, it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been

Photo courtesy of StudioLA

In the production of a movie, I don’t know how music and film rights work, but I suspect they’re tricky, and they are the details punching this movie right into you. There are photos from every part of Fong-Torres’s life, and while the Ken Burns effect gets a little wearisome, when it works, it works well. Gathering all this material must have been a monster of a task, but its inclusion is the diligence due a journalist’s bio, and I love it.

I specifically point to moments spread throughout the film where Fong-Torres reads his own work, in voice-over, while the camera shows us the words as they appeared 50 years ago on the pages of the Rolling Stone. It’s a brilliant decision, perhaps the filmmaker’s best.

My quibbles are small. In addition to excessive Ken Burns effect, the last 11 minutes of this thing take too long to bring us home. I see what’s going on, but it feels as if the movie ends three times. At two hours in length, it’s already pushing this old man to his limits. Yet I’m willing to look the other way because the transition between the final scene and the end credits, with a great song to carry it out, really does the film justice.

My rating: 81 out of 100. Very good.

 * * *

Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres screens Sunday and Monday as part of the 44th Mill Valley Film Festival:

  • Sunday, Oct 10, 5:00 p.m., CinéArts Sequoia
  • Monday, Oct 11, 2:00 p.m., Smith Rafael Film Center

We’ll be joined by director Suzanne Joe Kai and subject Ben Fong-Torres in person for onstage conversations at both screenings.

Live music event with Ben Fong-Torres at Sweetwater Music Hall, Sunday, October 10.

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About Mitchell K. Dwyer

@scrivener likes movies.
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