L.A. Asian Pacific Film Fest 2021 Interview: Suzanne Joe Kai on Making a Doc Rock with “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres”

Over the course of nearly a decade, Suzanne Joe Kai would take on a number of responsibilities making “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” but one of the more unexpected ones was becoming a courier.

“Our editor would ask, “It’d be cool to understand his archives,” so we did a shoot with [Fong Torres] walking around his archives, which are truly astounding,” says Joe Kai, who couldn’t help but become enamored with one file cabinet of audio cassettes after another with interviews essentially charting the history of rock ’n’ roll during the legendary rock critic and editor’s time at Rolling Stone and wanted to use them in the film. “And [the tapes are] so, fragile, because they’re over 40 to 50 years old, so I would hand-carry them and fly them to archive restoration people. We would never let them out of our sight. They are that precious.”

You certainly understand why from “Like a Rolling Stone,” which demonstrates Fong-Torres’ ease around artists to gain insights no one else could about their process while Joe Kai, a former Bay Area broadcast journalist-turned-documentarian achieves the same. Fong-Torres’ time at the influential rock magazine during its early days in San Francisco earned him legendary status, coming at the same time as acts such as Carlos Santana, the Grateful Dead and the Doors were coming to the fore and the political climate of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s made for a particularly exciting scene in town to cover. But as Joe Kai finds, Fong-Torres has a life as fascinating as anyone he ever profiled, having grown up in Amarillo, Texas where his father pursued work in one of the few industries open to Asian Americans at the time as a chef at a Chinese restaurant and Ben could be counted on to lip sync Elvis Presley songs by the jukebox, eventually teaming that passion with his interest in journalism that he cultivated as a columnist at Oakland High School.

After toiling away as a writer/editor for the internal publication at for a phone company, Fong-Torres would see his true calling at a ragtag operation welcoming music reviews under the watchful eye of Jann Wenner, and a career that would eventually see him mentor Cameron Crowe and a legion of rock journalists, become a respected leader in the Asian American community of San Francisco and a bon vivant who could be counted on to host the Chinese New Year’s Parade and a comforting presence on local radio with no signs of slowing down. Still, Joe Kai somehow manages to keep up with the energetic renaissance man as he meets with the likes of Crowe, Annie Leibowitz and Quincy Jones to reminisce about old times and “Like a Rolling Stone” shows how he helped an entire generation of rock’n’roll come of age. With the film making its west coast premiere at the L.A. Asian Pacific Film Festival and soon making its way up north to Mill Valley Film Fest, Joe Kai spoke about getting to know a longtime friend even better with the making of this entertaining doc and making the leap from news gathering to feature filmmaking.

How did this come about?

I’ve known Ben for a while because we were both journalists in San Francisco. And years later, I had moved to Southern California and he says, “I’m coming down to Los Angeles to meet with Q. And do you want to get together after for dinner or something?” I said, “Sure.” Of course, it turns out Q was Quincy Jones and at the time, I actually was filming on the red carpet because I was helping Rotten Tomatoes at the time, so over dinner, I just said, “Ben, you’re in everybody else’s rock and roll documentary, but why isn’t there one about you?” And then he said, “Well, why don’t you just do one?” That’s how it started.

Even with your experience in journalism, is a feature documentary daunting?

Oh my goodness, yes. At least for me, it is so completely different. In television, we did short half-hours and we’d have to knock them out very rapidly, but then when I started to do the research, I started to really understand how profound Ben’s story really is. And then I said, “Oh my goodness.” For me, it was how did he get to A to Z, and what were his key motivating factors to rise to the level that he is today. What I love is, he breaks all the stereotypes out there that is perpetuated by mainstream media and he’s one of the very, very few Asian Americans in a feature-length documentary that I hope will reach a wide general audience. There’s a possibility there because of Rolling Stone magazine, and [various artists such as] Elton John and Steve Martin and Carlos Santana are in there – and [Paul] McCartney archivally is in there, so hopefully people will come for different reasons and get to know Ben, and Ben is very much loved by everybody — rock stars to the salt of the earth people in the community.

You actually involve him in a lot of the interviews you conduct with others – was that always part of the plan?

We basically followed his life and some things were just organically happening, like the interview with Bob Weir, for example. It was because he was doing something else in Bob Weir’s studio, and we just tagged along. Others just fell into our lap, just worked out really well. He has that rare ability to bring people out, to tell their truths, and that’s a rare ability. It’s because he’s proven that he’s a trusted journalist who will tell the truth, and not skew it with anything that’s not the truth. I knew him back then at his height at Rolling Stone, and I don’t think he’s changed. Ben was the same in high school, and the same today, so that’s who you’re getting, just a real straight shooter.

Even after knowing him for some time, did anything surprise you?

He really is a brilliant person, and he’s very funny. He can be serious, of course, but he has a very fast wit, so I was hopeful that I would have more of a 360 degree portrayal of him in the film to show all those sides. And I don’t know where he gets that from, but I know his late sister is very funny too, so sometimes maybe it’s in the family.

And being a journalist, I realized there’s probably millions of people out there that are rock and roll fans and millions that read Rolling Stone, and Ben was relatively well-known, but it’s a relatively new story [in the film]. Every time I would do an interview, it’d be really astounding. I would be learning things that didn’t exist before. He’s got some great books out there, even an autobiography, but to connect it to his professional work — that’s what I wanted to understand clearly and I uncovered things that’s not in any films or any books. It’s the nuances that I got from only the insiders at Rolling Stone, in the music industry, and from his family and we did so many shoots over so many years, because if somebody had not talked to the other person for 30 years, I would apply every bit of my ethical journalism and crosscheck all the facts and the real proving point was Ben invited over 20 of his friends who were the original team from back in the day at Rolling Stone and they’re coming to screen the film. All I cared about is, “Is this accurate? Is this accurate?” And they came back and said, “You nailed it.”

“Like a Rolling Stone: The Life of Ben Fong-Torres” will screen at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival on September 26th at 12:30 pm at the Regal L.A. Live. It will next screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival on October 10th at 5 pm at the CineArts Sequoia and October 11th at 2 pm at the Smith Rafael Film Center and at the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis on October 16th at the Living Room Theaters at 7:30 pm.