Ben Fong-Torres defined Rolling Stone magazine's pioneering rock-music coverage.
The Netflix documentary "Like a Rolling Stone: the Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres" reveals the writer and editor's essential contributions to the magazine's early years.
While Hunter S. Thompson and Timothy Crouse pushed the boundaries of political coverage for the magazine, Fong-Torres set the standard for the new field of rock music criticism. Along with his innovative interviews, feature stories and reviews, Fong-Torres as the magazine's music editor shaped other writers' work.
Lester Bangs gave Jann Wenner's counterculture magazine a druggy hip persona. Fong-Torres' incisive writing and revelations of rock stars' inner personalities exhibited the authority of serious journalism. Fong-Torres' pieces helped make Rolliing Stone a national bible for a new rebellious generation.
Fong-Torres frequently worked with photographer Annie Leibowitz. In an endearing reunion with Leibowitz, Fong-Torres recalls how they invented their innovative techniques on the fly.
Interviews with rock stars like Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, singer Country Joe McDonald and Grateful Dead vocalist Bob Weir indicate that Fong-Torres was trusted by the musicians, although he had a strong reputation for honest criticism. Wenner in an interview recalls that Fong-Torres resisted the rock world's destructive drug use.
Audio excerpts from Fong-Torres' taped interviews with stars like Marvin Gaye, Al Green and Stevie Wonder show how he got them to reveal their hopes and vulnerabilities.
The son of Chinese immigrants, Fong-Torres gained his work ethic carrying out thankless tasks in his father's struggling restaurants in Oakland and San Francisco, with a brief sojourn to Amarillo, Texas. Pop radio offered visions of a different world.
Discovering his passion for journalism while covering the student protest movement as the editor of San Francisco State's newspaper, he left a job as the editor of a phone company magazine to take a chance on Wenner's venture, launched with legendary San Francisco writer Ralph Gleason.
An earnest Chinese American with long hair and glasses, Fong-Torres defined the magazine's music writing. While popular musicians gave the magazine credibility, Fong-Torres' work also established the careers of groups like Big Brother and the Holding Company, the Doors and the Jefferson Airplane. He recalls giving renewed attention to Ray Charles, whose music was underappreciated by the rock generation.
While working at Rolling Stone, Fong-Torres also got involved in covering discrimination against Chinese Americans and gang conflicts in San Francisco's Chinatown. Fong-Torres' brother, an anti-gang activist, was mysteriously murdered, a devastating tragedy.
Fong-Torres refused to leave the Bay Area when Wenner moved Rolling Stone to New York City. After a few years contributing to Rolling Stone from the West Coast, he built a career as a freelance writer for Parade magazine and other publications and as a public speaker and community activist.
While he's a respected community leader who now looks like a distinguished professor or successful businessman, Fong-Torres still loves the music. He's shown reuniting with Elton John before a concert on John's current tour.
Fong-Torres is known for his impersonation of Bob Dylan, alluded to in the film's title. He's the Dylan of rock critics.