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Review: ‘Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres’ spotlights music scribe

Ben Fong-Torres sits in a radio studio in the documentary "Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres."
The documentary “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & and Times of Ben Fong-Torres” tries to be more than just an admiring portrait of the writer-editor, seen here in a radio studio.
(Fred Morales Jr.)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

The story of Rolling Stone magazine’s heyday is one of pop culture and journalism in a spirited jam session. Started in 1967 as a zeitgeisty Bay Area rock rag, its first 10 years wouldn’t have been so consequential without the reportorial craft and music-savvy heart of writer-editor Ben Fong-Torres. An Oakland native, his deep-dive interviews with the Doors, the Grateful Dead, Marvin Gaye, Elton John, Tina Turner, Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt and countless others helped cement the publication as a respected must-read for culture lovers.

Moviegoers will know Fong-Torres for his cool mentor treatment (as played by Terry Chen) in Cameron Crowe’s thinly disguised roman à clef “Almost Famous.” But the success story of Fong-Torres, a son of Chinese immigrants, has resonance beyond getting legends to open up. That countermelody — not entirely unaffiliated with his interview skills — is why Suzanne Joe Kai’s documentary “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres” is occasionally more than the usual admiring portrait.

When it came to drawing out musicians’ creativity-fueled outsiderdom — the Doors’ eclectic inspirations, Ray Charles’s sense of underappreciation, Marvin Gaye’s insecurities — who better for the job than a first-generation Chinese American who felt different at home and then, once he’d left behind working in his dad’s Chinatown restaurants for the media spaces he sought as a writer, looked different from those around him? (Interview excerpts are heard throughout, thanks to Fong-Torres’ well-kept cassette archive.)

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Observant, ethical and encyclopedic in his knowledge, Fong-Torres’ work stood out in rock circles for its sensitive depth: soulful inquiry of a soulful art. And it all started for him as a kid glued to the radio, vibing to the Americanness of pop music, while in social situations, preferring to ask questions of others than talk about himself. That keenness was nurtured as editor of his college paper during the ever-roiling counterculture ’60s, before Jann Wenner made him one of his nascent publication’s first hires. It’s a life both meaningful and inspiring, whether it’s from his own achievements or the fact that he paid it forward to marginalized voices, from emerging Asian American journalists to entry-level female staffers at Rolling Stone who would later become working writers.

But Kai’s struggle to balance glowing testimonials, fast-paced archival montages and an unassuming subject makes for some uneven stretches. Though Fong-Torres carries the air of someone averse to self-promotion, you want more of his conversational, insightful eloquence about his formative experiences, rather than one more talking head repeating the same snappy sound bites about the importance of Rolling Stone. (Kai falls into the common doc trap of wanting to prove she’s interviewed tons of people, which often comes at the expense of clarity and cohesion.)

Some of the star appearances make sense, as when the Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir notes that if Fong-Torres slammed them in print, they “probably had it coming,” or when the editor and photographer Annie Leibovitz reminisce about working together. However, newly filmed encounters between Fong-Torres and his noteworthy interviewees (Elton John, Steve Martin) feel awkward and superfluous, especially when we’ve been told his mojo was partly about being unfazed by celebrity.

More organically lively is a reunion between Fong-Torres and his onetime protégé (and movie immortalizer) Crowe, whose enthusiasm is palpable for both the magazine days and the man who gave him his break. On the more emotional end, the long shadow of Fong-Torres’ older brother, Barry’s, still-unsolved 1972 murder, alleged to be at the hands of gangs, continues to hurt, while his long marriage and reconnection to his family’s roots over the years are clearly sources of joy and comfort.

When rock star wattage is the focus, “Like a Rolling Stone” doesn’t distinguish itself, but when Kai finds those ties in Fong-Torres’ life between the son who dreamed and the man who accomplished, the movie is like airplay for an album deep cut: what was always there getting some well-deserved attention.

'Like a Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres'

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes

Playing: Starts Nov. 26, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica


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