At one point in “Like a Rolling Stone,” Ben Fong-Torres describes how he became more inclined to ask others questions than to talk about himself, reflecting on a relatively unpleasant childhood growing up as the son of Chinese immigrants who hailed from a painful past and was frequently picked upon at school. It surely made him a remarkable journalist who was integral to the success of Rolling Stone Magazine in its foundational years, but one senses it also must’ve made him a tricky subject for director Suzanne Joe Kai to profile, a challenge that she rises to accept knowing that his story is every bit as interesting as the artists he covered.
In “Like a Rolling Stone,” Fong-Torres is known well-enough by rock fans to be recognized at concerts, but likely to slip past public consciousness apart from Terry Chen’s portrayal of him in “Almost Famous,” a depiction he objects to (even as Cameron Crowe brings evidence of how much he responded with “Cray-zee” back in the day) and hasn’t made it easy on anyone trying to categorize him, saying as soon as film starts rolling that “I’m still identified as a rock critic, and that’s not me.” Even if the film were to only cover the Rolling Stone era, he was an editor, best known for writing insightful artist profiles rather than reviews, but Joe Kai finds herself making a film as much about the Bay Area in the throes of a wild transformation as she does a biography as Fong-Torres was the beneficiary of a burgeoning music scene in the late ‘60s where the Grateful Dead, the Eagles and the Doors were playing clubs and Jann Wenner saw fit to start a counterculture magazine that was equal parts rock and politics.
At a publication that lacked structure, Fong-Torres could parlay a job as a writer/editor for a phone company’s internal periodical into a gig where he could pursue his love of music, having once setting up a bottle rocket as a makeshift radio with his brother Barry when his family couldn’t afford a proper one growing up, but as much as he helped turn Rolling Stone into an institution, he didn’t move to New York when the magazine did in the early ‘80s, continuing to write books, deejay for local stations and host the annual TV broadcast of the Chinese New Years Day Parade and a number of other community events. As Wenner remembers, he wasn’t one to join the rest of the staff for drug-fueled after hours antics at Rolling Stone and Crowe praises him for teaching him how to be a professional, but there’s more than enough juicy material in the interviews with artists that Fong-Torres from his archives that reveal an interlocutor like few others, and eventually when he opens up about himself, even though he can barely talk about some of the more tragic events in his life such as the murder of Barry, who became a probation officer and was a casualty in a gang war.
For a story that’s bursting at the seams, the seams occasionally show as Joe Kai employs a number of different techniques to draw out Fong-Torres, from more traditional sit-down interviews to having him engage in conversations with Crowe and others that can be occasionally jarring to watch side-by-side in quick-cut fashion, with visits with Annie Leibovitz, who shot his wedding, and Steve Martin, who talks about how pivotal a moment Fong-Torres’ Rolling Stone profile was in his career, maddeningly brief. (Split-second teases of when he was a contestant on “Wheel of Fortune” or the World Series trophy that sits alongside his Emmy on his desk also leave one wanting more.) Still, as other writers testify to how he made them better as an editor and musicians and leaders from the Asian American community alike share how he uniquely understood and properly conveyed stories about them, Joe Kai gets her arms around a story of someone who constantly put the collective good before himself, making this spotlight perhaps a bit uncomfortable for its subject but quite illuminating and entirely deserved.