I am thrilled to be attending the World Premiere of LIKE A ROLLING STONE: THE LIFE & TIMES OF BEN FONG-TORRES, a documentary directed, produced and written by Suzanne Joe Kai, when it screens on Sunday, June 13 at 1:00pm at The Tribeca Film Festival at The Battery in New York.
The film will also stream beginning Monday, June 14 at 6:00 p.m. Tickets are $15 and the film will be available on demand through June 23. Click here to purchase tickets for the stream.
Even if the name “Ben Fong-Torres” doesn’t ring a bell, you’ve probably read his work. Soon after graduating from San Francisco State College, he 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.
Cast: Ben Fong-Torres, Elton John, Carlos Santana, Steve Martin, Quincy Jones, Bob Weir, Cameron Crowe, Annie Leibovitz and many more.
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
Director, Producer, Screenwriter: Suzanne Joe Kai
Additional Executive Producers: Andy Hsieh, Kathryn Everett
Cinematographer: Hiroshi Hara, Jason Joseffer, Fraser Bradshaw
Editor: Doug Blush, Dan Lawrence, Greg Byers, William Gilmore
Executive Producer: Freida Lee Mock, Doug Blush, Tony Hsieh, Bryn Mooser
Associate Producer: Justin Lacob
Co-Producer: Greg Byers