“Like a Rolling Stone” review: journalist Ben Fong-Torres continues


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The story of Rolling Stone magazine’s heyday is one of pop culture and journalism in a lively jam session. Launched in 1967 as Zeitgeisty Bay Area rag rock, his first 10 years wouldn’t have been so important without the journalistic profession and music-loving heart of writer-editor Ben Fong-Torres. Hailing from Oakland, his in-depth interviews with The Doors, The Grateful Dead, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt and countless others helped cement the post as a respected must-read for fans of culture.

Film buffs will know Fong-Torres for his treatment of a cool mentor (played by Terry Chen) in Cameron Crowe’s barely disguised key novel “Almost Famous.” But the success story of Fong-Torres, a son of Chinese immigrants, resonates beyond opening legends. This counter-melody – which is not entirely foreign to his skills as an interviewer – is why Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” is sometimes more than the usual admiring portrait.

When it came to bringing out the underdog fueled by the creativity of musicians – the eclectic inspirations of the Doors, the feeling of underappreciation of Ray Charles, the insecurities of Marvin Gaye – who better for the job than an American? first generation Chinese who felt different at home and then, once he let work in his father’s Chinatown restaurants for the media spaces he sought as a writer, looked different from those who l ‘surrounded? (Excerpts from interviews are heard throughout, courtesy of Fong-Torres’ well-preserved cassette archives.)

Observer, ethical and encyclopedic in his knowledge, Fong-Torres’ work has stood out in rock circles for its sensitive depth: the moving investigation of a moving art. And it all started for him as a kid glued to the radio, vibrant with the Americanity of pop music, while in social situations, preferring to ask questions of others rather than talk about himself. -same. This passion was nurtured as editor of his college journal during the ever-choppy counterculture of the 1960s, before Jann Wenner made him one of the first hires of his fledgling publication. It’s a life that is both meaningful and inspiring, whether it be because of his own accomplishments or the fact that he paid it to marginalized voices, from Asian American journalists to junior employees at Rolling Stone who would become later active writers.

But Kai’s struggle to balance glowing testimony, fast-paced archival montages, and an unassuming subject matter results in uneven stretching. While Fong-Torres sounds like a person opposed to self-promotion, you want more of his conversational and insightful eloquence about his formative experiences, rather than another talking head repeating the same catchy sound bites about importance. by Rolling Stone. (Kai falls into the common docs trap of wanting to prove she’s interviewed tons of people, which often comes at the cost of clarity and cohesion.)

Some of the star appearances make sense, like when Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir notes that while Fong-Torres criticized them on paper, they “probably brought him in”, or when editor and photographer Annie Leibovitz remembers working together. However, the recently filmed encounters between Fong-Torres and his notable interlocutors (Elton John, Steve Martin) seem awkward and unnecessary, especially when we were told that part of his mojo is not being disturbed by fame.

More organically alive is the reunion between Fong-Torres and his former protégé (and film immortalizer) Crowe, whose enthusiasm is palpable both for the magazine days and for the man who gave him the chance. On a more emotional level, the long shadow of Fong-Torres’ older brother Barry, the still unsolved 1972 murder suspected of being in gang hands, continues to hurt, as his long marriage and reconnection to the her family’s roots over the years are clearly a source of joy and comfort.

When the power of the rock star is the center of attention, “Like a Rolling Stone” doesn’t stand out, but when Kai finds those connections in Fong-Torres’ life between the son who dreamed and the man who accomplished, the film is like a broadcast for a deep cut album: which has always been there to get some well-deserved attention.

“Like a rolling stone: the life and times of Ben Fong-Torres”

Unclassified

Duration of operation: 1 hour 42 minutes

Playing: Starts November 26, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica

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