Groundbreaking Music Journalist Profiled in NB Film Fest Documentary

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Ben Fong-Torres at KSAN-FM, the dominant rock station in the Bay Area through the ’70s. He joined as a fill-in for a month in 1970 and wound up doing weekends for a decade–while editing and writing for Rolling Stone. / Photo Credit: Fred Morales, Jr.

By Simone Goldstone | NB Indy Soundcheck Columnist

“Crazy,” says Terry Chen, the actor portraying famed Rolling Stone journalist Ben Fong-Torres, in Cameron Crowe’s iconic film “Almost Famous.”

“Crazy,” Fong-Torres echoes 21 years later, this time in a film solely about himself.

Journalists write about people’s stories, content with being a faceless name on the byline, letting their subjects shine. That’s why it’s such a treat to uncover the riveting, inspiring, and fascinating behind-the-scenes story of a music journalist in the film “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” part of this year’s Newport Beach Film Festival.

Ben Fong-Torres chronicled rock music in Rolling Stone for 11 years in the 60s and 70s. He interviewed the most influential musicians of all time. One of the most respected writers in rock, Ben focused on truth and honesty. His ethics, investigative journalism, and affable nature made him a favorite among readers and artists alike.

From his cover stories with Jefferson Airplane, to being the last one to interview Jim Morrison before his fateful departure to Paris, Fong-Torres carved the way for music journalists.

His story is every bit as compelling as his subjects. Rife with racial tension, as a son of Chinese immigrants growing up in San Francisco’s Chinatown, “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” beautifully tells the story of the American dream, devasating personal struggles, and one of the most historic rock writing careers of all time.

Ben Fong-Torres today / Courtesy of StudioLA

“I was the Roy Orbison song ‘Running Scared,’ as an older Chinese man,” Fong-Torres says. The film brings to life the struggles many Chinese-Americans faced, and the harrowing outcome of the tension, dotted with famous rock stars, outrageous 70’s clothes, and historic magazine covers.

Riffling through drawers of cassette tapes, Fong-Torres reflects on his recorded interviews with George Harrison and Bob Dylan. This film is a must for music fans, not only to understand the dynamic between journalists and their subjects, but to view the wonderful friendship and mutual respect that was special to Fong-Torres.

“He understood Jim Morrison’s Jungian lyrics like nobody else,” said Ray Manzarek of the Doors. It was Fong-Torres who referred to Jim Morrison as a Poet, and not a Rockstar, exemplifying Fong-Torres’s ability to see the artists for who they were.

The film is full of useful tidbits for journalists: “’Tell me more’ is one of the best questions you can ask.”

Fong-Torres had the ability to switch from narrative to Q&A formats, and his ethical rule of truth-telling journalism created the blueprint for Rolling Stone’s profiles. This is what separates Rolling Stone from People. This magazine isn’t a rag, it’s the place “where you went to get the news your parents didn’t know about.” We have Fong-Torres to thank for its honesty.

Ben Fong-Torres press badge collection / Courtesy of StudioLA

Along with the outstanding footage of Fong-Torres’ clothing of the era, the film recaps his time touring with Paul McCartney and having famed Rolling Stone photographer Annie Leibovitz shooting his wedding photos.

Funny facts of Rolling Stone from its early days includes that their journalist had to use egg timers to keep interviews at three minutes so the phone bills would be low. Fong-Torres’ first desk and chair came from a Goodwill.

Some musicians would only talk to Fong-Torres, for Ben’s ability to speak the truth and his honest reviews garnered him a level of respect on par with his subjects.

Noting his famous article with Jefferson Starship, Fong-Torres wasn’t afraid to write about the band’s fighting and struggles with staying together. This was immortalized in the Jefferson Airplane song “Third Week in the Chelsea,” as Grace Slick sang “…Everybody sees that what they read in the Rolling Stone has really come to be.” Fong-Torres went from writing about music, to being written about.

The harrowing tale of escalating racial tensions that led to his brother’s tragic death exposes an often under looked side of the time period for Chinese Americans.

Ben Fong-Torres cassette interviews with some of the legendary names in Rock and roll / Courtesy of StudioLA

Fong-Torres’ poignant tale of feeling his brother’s death in Dylan’s song “It’s Alright Ma, I’m Only Bleeding,” while on tour with Dylan and the Band in 1974 reminds us that music is intimate and personal, even to critics.

“Music will always have more of a function than just entertainment, and that will never end,” Fong-Torres says.

This touching, dramatic, informative, and fun documentary will quickly be a favorite to any music lover or writer. As Fong-Torres talks about the circle of life, it’s really his life that has come full-circle. From spotlighting others, to finally being in the spotlight himself, after watching this film, all I can say is, “why wasn’t there a movie about Ben Fong-Torres sooner?”

Directed by Suzanne Joe Kai, a documentary filmmaker and also the CEO of CSI International based in Newport Beach.

“Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” screens on Friday, Oct 22, at 5 p.m. at South Coast Village Theatre. Visit NewportBeachFilmFest.com for more information.

 

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