The Tribeca Film Festival is streaming “Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” through June 23. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased here.
Last Sunday, my first film experience post-pandemic took place on a large scale, complete with temperature checks, oversized plastic lawn chairs set up in pods to adhere to social distancing rules, and a jumbo concert sized screen at The Battery in New York, where I watched the Tribeca Film Festival’s World Premiere of “Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres”.
It was great to catch up with my friend, Ben Fong-Torres, the subject of the documentary directed, produced and written by Suzanne Joe Kai. The film features exclusive interviews with Elton John, Carlos Santana, Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, Bob Weir, Cameron Crowe, Annie Leibovitz, Pulitzer-prize winning journalist David Felton, Holly George-Warren, Sarah Lazin, Laurel Gonsalves, and so many more.
The idea for the documentary was birthed over 10 years ago. Suzanne and Ben were having dinner one night when Suzanne mused, “You’re in everybody else’s documentary. Why isn’t there one about you?”
“I started this 10-12 years ago, so I could get the early sources that worked alongside Ben. I blocked out all of that, and I focused in on the sources. Then I started to look at books, film and everywhere else. To my shock, Ben’s story was really missing. There’s a lot about Ben out there, but in terms of Ben’s real true life story, I felt it was missing. Then, that became a mission of mine to tell the true story of Ben.”
Cara Cusumano, Festival Director and Vice President for Programming for The Tribeca Film Festival writes, “Soon after graduating from San Francisco State College, Ben Fong-Torres started writing for Rolling Stone in 1968. The next year, he was hired as an editor and writer. Fong-Torres’s cover stories on Bob Dylan, Marvin Gaye, and Jefferson Airplane helped to shape the way a country understood its counterculture, while Rolling Stone, under Fong-Torres’s guidance as a senior editor, became Rolling Stone.
Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary is much more than a time capsule of an era: it’s a portrait of someone who can’t be reduced to a profession. Fong-Torres walks us through his upbringing as the child of Chinese immigrants in the 1950s, his earliest interest in rock and soul as a way of belonging, and the remarkable career that followed. Through conversations with colleagues and friends like Annie Leibovitz, Cameron Crowe, and Steve Martin, as well as authentic recordings from Fong-Torres’s archives—including Elton John—we understand why Fong-Torres was the interviewer that most bands actually requested: he treated each musician with a deep admiration for their craft, and saw them as people rather than icons.”
The Playlist’s Andrew Bundy writes, “Ben Fong-Torres is one of the essential music journalists in history. The man behind key cover stories on seminal counterculture figures at the height of a creative revolution (i.e., Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, and Marvin Gaye), Fong-Torres, was the writer whom musical icons sought out. Growing up a Chinese immigrant in the 50s, rock ‘n roll and soul represented the sound of being heard for the future Rolling Stones editor, and, in the hands of director Suzanne Joe Kai, “Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” looks to be one of the most impassioned docs of the fest. Talking to contemporaries such as Cameron Crowe and Steve Martin, ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ explores art as an expression of everyday values, not simply a means to a stack of greenbacks.”
It was a lovefest for Ben on the jumbo screen, and at the afterparty at The Diageo Cocktail Garden held at The View in Battery Park, sponsored by Don Julio Tequila. Below are highlights of the Q & A from Ben.
Diageo tequila brand Don Julio celebrated Cinco de Mayo with a campaign supporting bar and restaurant workers that includes giveaways of vouchers and charitable donations.
I collected a few “Don Julio Cincos,” from the “Automated Tequila Machine” at the afterparty.
Valued at $5, the vouchers have a QR code and PIN to redeem with payment app Venmo and the brand is urging people to spend at a bar or restaurant.
And noshed on fish tacos, chicken sliders, beef sliders, flan and macarons.
Suzanne Joe Kai received two Emmy® Award nominations and was named Best Woman News Reporter while a broadcast journalist at San Francisco’s NBC affiliate KRON-TV. She worked at KCBS Radio (CBS) and television stations KTVU (FOX), KGO (ABC), KGUN (ABC), and RottenTomatoes.com. Kai holds a master’s in documentary film from Stanford University.
Ben Fong-Torres was born in Alameda, California, in 1945, and raised in Oakland’s Chinatown, where his parents owned a restaurant. He attended San Francisco State College from 1962 through 1966, majored in Radio-TV-Film and served as a reporter and editor of the campus daily.
He began writing for Rolling Stone magazine in 1968, in its eighth issue. He had a full-time job at another publication: Pacific Telephone’s employee magazine. By night, he was a volunteer editor at East West, a bilingual Chinatown newspaper. In May, 1969, Ben joined Rolling Stone as news editor. His interview subjects included Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Ray Charles, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Elton John, Stevie Wonder, Bonnie Raitt, the Jackson 5, Linda Ronstadt, Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, the Grateful Dead, Ike & Tina Turner, Santana, Diane Keaton, and Steve Martin. The Ray Charles interview won the Deems Taylor Award for Magazine Writing in 1974.
Ben was also a weekend DJ on KSAN, a pioneer FM rock station, from 1970 to 1980. He wrote and narrated a syndicated radio special, San Francisco: What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been, which won a Billboard Award for Broadcast Excellence. He was the host of KQED-FM’s live, weekly arts show, Fog City Radio, and in 2016 created Moonalice Radio, an online station for the jam band. He programs the music and does a DJ show, 9 to 12 am and pm.
Ben has co-anchored KTVU-TV’s coverage of the Chinese New Year parades since the Year of the Ox – or 1997. He and co-anchor Julie Haener have won five Emmys.
Also on television, Ben did profiles on Evening Magazine in 1977, and, in 1982, went to China as scriptwriter for a special, Cycling Through China. His most unique TV credit was his 1993 appearance on “Wheel of Fortune”. Over three nights, he won some $99,000 in cash and fabulous prizes. He also appeared on the nationally syndicated “Your Big Break” in spring of 2000, doing an impersonation of Bob Dylan.
Ben left Rolling Stone in 1981 and has since written for dozens of magazines, including Esquire, GQ (where he was pop music columnist for three years), Parade, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure, American Film, TV Guide, Harper’s Bazaar, Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter. He wrote the main biographies for People magazine’s tributes to Jerry Garcia and Frank Sinatra.
In 1983, Fong-Torres joined the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was a feature writer and radio columnist until 1992, when he left to write his memoirs, The Rice Room: From Number Two Son to Rock and Roll, published in 1994 by Hyperion (and in softcover by Plume/Dutton), which reached the San Francisco Chronicle’s best-sellers list.
Ben wrote the main text for The Motown Album: The Sound of Young America (St. Martin’s Press). In 1991, he published Hickory Wind: The Life and Times of Gram Parsons (Pocket/Simon & Schuster). The book was nominated for the Ralph J. Gleason Book Award, and St. Martin’s Press published an updated version of it in fall of 1998.
In 1993, on completion of The Rice Room, Ben joined Gavin, the San Francisco-based trade weekly for the radio and recording industries, as managing editor. He vacated that post in late 1997 to work on The Hits Just Keep On Coming: The History of Top 40 Radio, which was published by Miller Freeman Books in fall of 1998.
In 1999, Ben published Not Fade Away: A Backstage Pass to 20 Years of Rock & Roll, which was followed by a second collection, Becoming Almost Famous, in 2006. He wrote The Doors by the Doors (2007) and the Grateful Dead Scrapbook (2009). A book about the Eagles has been published in two editions. His 2013 book, Willin’: The Story of Little Feat, was released in an Audible version early in 2021, along with The Rice Room. Ben narrated both books.
Fong-Torres is frequently called on to emcee community and fund-raising events, and to conduct on-stage interviews at events like South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, and at the Mill Valley Film Festival. He is also known for his impressions of, among others, Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan. Both are featured in one song, “Rainy Day Bookstores,” on a CD entitled Stranger Than Fiction, featuring best-selling authors performing music.
He is a real-life character in Almost Famous, the 2000 film by Cameron Crowe. www.benfongtorres.com
The Knockturnal: On The Scene: Ben Fong-Torres Attends “Like a Rolling Stone” TFF After Party the playlist.net: “Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times Of Ben Fong-Torres”: Is A Must-See For Music Lovers [Tribeca Review]
Lia Chang is an actor, a multi-media content producer and co-founder of Bev’s Girl Films, making films that foster inclusion and diversity on both sides of the camera. Bev’s Girl Films’ debut short film, Hide and Seek was a top ten film in the Asian American Film Lab’s 2015 72 Hour Shootout Filmmaking Competition, and she received a Best Actress nomination. BGF collaborates with and produces multi-media content for artists, actors, designers, theatrical productions, composers, musicians and corporations. Lia has appeared in the films Wolf, New Jack City, A Kiss Before Dying, King of New York, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Dragon, Taxman. She stars in and served as Executive Producer for the short independent films Hide and Seek, Balancing Act, Rom-Com Gone Wrong, Belongingness and When the World was Young (2021 DisOrient Film Audience Choice Award for Best Short Narrative). She is also the Executive Producer for The Cactus, The Language Lesson, The Writer and Cream and 2 Shugahs.
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