Right place, right time is half the battle for culture journalists. The other half is writing well. Ben Fong-Torres and the legacy he cemented at Rolling Stone and beyond is charted well in this Suzanne Joe Kai-directed documentary. What he achieved at the peak is what defines him now. Rock Critic. Decades ago and reflecting on it, Fong-Torres gets the chance to relay some of his fondest memories and finest moments in Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres. For those that watch Like a Rolling Stone for entertainment, there is a grand and decently worked documentary here to showcase the inevitable superstars, and the rise and rise of a music paper.
But for those checking on how music criticism has changed, Fong-Torres is an underappreciated flag bearer for quality. He is one of the last living greats of music writing. Kai makes a definitive choice in showing that by detailing the potentially unheard interviews, by relying on the artists Fong-Torres covered at the time. It gives that placement of the booming times of music writing and music itself but does so without prodding nostalgia or jealousy from those who hope to follow in Fong-Torres’ footsteps. An analysis of technique and the writer rather than the big stars he interviewed draws the line between writing and artistic intent. Kai correctly and assertively assures the audience. They are here to learn of Fong-Torres, not the Elton John’s and Jim Morrison’s that littered his byline over decades in the field.
Losing its way a bit as the Vietnam War explodes on the doorstep of Americans, the expectation of reflection on that is an inevitable part of the Rolling Stone fabric. Fong-Torres is shunted to the side from time to time, to focus on the war songs of the 1970s and how they were promoted by like-minded papers. There will never be anyone like that now. Not because the songs are not good or the artists are not available, but because the power of the press has changed, shifted permanently and fundamentally. Fong-Torres does not address this directly, but it is seen in his later work and actions, in how he has moved on from the Rock Critic label that has lingered on his CV for decades.
Both an adept run-through of Fong-Torres’ life and times, but also an understanding that his high point does not define the man. It is deeply inspiring and rekindles the flame for those that need to hear their work is going to shift in its unknowable ways. Find inspiration, pursue it. Incredible. A delicate and inspiring documentary that does not quite marry the start of Fong-Torres’ life with his success or the articulations found later in his career. Despite that separation, Like a Rolling Stone is a massive and enjoyable piece that trickles the music hound details in with the struggles of the Chinese-American families of the 1950s. Inevitably showcasing the greats that wrote there, Hunter S. Thompson’s name always crops up when Rolling Stone is mentioned, but Fong-Torres is the consistent masterclass that helmed some of the best pieces of the paper. Like a Rolling Stone shows just that.