The Mill Valley Film Festival returns for its 44th season Oct. 7-17 with online and in-theater screenings of independent and world cinema, including “Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres,” a standout documentary about a living legend in journalism that will carry particular resonance for Bay Area fans of music and cultural lore.
Fong-Torres, 76, who was born in Alameda to immigrants from China, spent much of his youth working at his family’s Chinese restaurant in Oakland’s Chinatown before he developed a knack for journalism at San Francisco State and became the first music editor at Rolling Stone magazine in the late ‘60s.
But it was during his boyhood that Fong-Torres developed a love for rock and roll — largely stimulated and quenched by the family’s radio.
“Overall, I found radio and music entertaining as well as a lifeline to the American mainstream at a time when I was pretty much trapped in a Chinese family restaurant, along with my sister, Shirley, and brothers, Barry and Burton,” Fong-Torres recounted. “Our escape was homework, reading and the radio. And that stuck with me.”
Fong-Torres’ love of radio endured well after his youth, making a lasting impression upon him that echoed into a frank writing style at Rolling Stone as well as a few stints in radio itself.
“I was always a fan of comedy, and so top 40 had DJs who were jocular, or dis-jocular, and a couple of them came not as role models as much as friendly advisers,” Fong-Torres said. “Gary Owens, who went on to ‘Laugh-In’ in Los Angeles, started in Oakland at KEWB. I lucked into a part-time job there when I was in high school, and he was there during a shift. We became friends, he left me some nice advice and we stayed friends through his entire life.”
Fong-Torres also pointed to Russ “The Moose” Syracuse on KYA, another fixture of Bay Area radio, as an influence. “He did a free-form thing on top 40 radio and got away with it and gave me inspiration.”
Although the America of his youth was segregated with an animus toward people of Asian descent that hindered their professional opportunities, Fong-Torres said he was in tune with mainstream top 40 music.
“I was raised on top 40 music — that’s what I heard at the restaurants where I worked — and top 40 back then was the most democratic of juke boxes, in that there was so much R&B, so much country, so much pop, a smattering of folk and other genres,” Fong-Torres explained. “You had the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the top 40, you had the Purple People Eaters in the top 40.”
Fong-Torres ultimately parlayed his impressive knowledge of music and experience writing for San Francisco State’s newspaper into a career at Rolling Stone, first headquartered at 746 Brannan St.
“S.F. State drew musicians onto the campus to do free concerts or promotional concerts, including Big Brother and the Holding Company and Grace Slick’s first band called the Great Society,” he remembered. “And there were blues and folk festivals every year, and a blues festival might include gospel and rock, and a folk festival might include rock and country.”
Fong-Torres accumulated a library of interviews of the artists he covered over decades, but most of the interviews were recorded on now-fragile cassette tapes. Fortunately, many of the tapes, which provide archival material for the film, have been digitally remastered, and many more will be preserved — a task largely shepherded by documentary filmmaker Suzanne Joe Kai.
“We would be so, so careful with the archives,” said Kai, a Bay Area native who was at 22 the first female Asian American to become an on-camera journalist at KRON-TV. “I would hand carry them, we would never let them out of our sight and then I would deliver them personally to restoration people.”
The list of names of Fong-Torres’ numerous interviewees reads like a who’s who of pop music, including Marvin Gaye, Paul McCartney, Jim Morrison, Linda Ronstadt, Tina Turner and Diane Keaton. But it’s Fong-Torres’ interview with Ray Charles, which won him the Deems Taylor Award for Magazine Writing, that may be the writer’s favorite.
“Ray Charles was No. 1 because he was not at the top of the charts when I suggested we do him and because I just felt like he was one of the main foundations of the music that we were then covering at Rolling Stone,” said Fong-Torres. “Without him, there would be much less music.”
“He proved me right,” Fong-Torres said about the interview that included the singer’s commentary on racism in the music industry. “He was very angry that he was being bypassed, largely by white artists using his style to be populating the top of the charts. So he took advantage of my approach to him and he did a wonderful job in terms of the interview.”
Since Fong-Torres’ days at Rolling Stone, the balance of power has shifted away from journalists and toward the artists’ managers, PR agencies, agents and other representatives who gatekeep the singers’ availability for interviews.
“Whereas at one point Rolling Stone was just about the only game in town, now everybody is covering pop rock music, and the scene is on so many media platforms. Now, the power is in the hands of the artists and their representatives; they can pick and choose if they want to be on TV, late night or early morning, podcasts or satellite radio stations. They set the rules for the reporters and say, ‘OK, you get 15 minutes backstage and you can’t ask these questions, and we’ll have somebody with the artist to make sure that happens correctly.’”
While Fong-Torres will forever be associated with music journalism, since 1997 he also has become known as the television co-anchor for San Francisco’s Chinese New Year Parade, a role he looks forward to and from which he shares his insights on Chinese culture.
But during his youth he resisted pressure to immerse himself in Chinese culture, its ethics, ceremonies and rituals, preferring instead to assimilate. His attitude would change after he wrote “The Rice Room” in 1994, a book about his parents, but especially since he started co-anchoring the parade.
“It took the parade for me to come around,” Fong-Torres said. “I got more into Chinese culture, and, in turn, I was able to impart some of that to the audience. Years before, I would have said ‘no’ to the gig and said, ‘nah, I’m too busy doing radio and writing about music.’ But I’m glad that the parade came along because it definitely has resonated with me.”
“Like a Rolling Stone: The Life and Times of Ben Fong-Torres screens at 5 p.m. Oct. 10 at the CinéArts Sequoia, and 2 p.m. Oct. 11 at the Smith Rafael Film Center. Ben Fong-Torres and his wife, Dianne, and director Suzanne Joe Kai will be present for post-screening conversations at both theaters, and there will be an after-screening live music event with Ben Fong Torres at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley, Oct. 10.
IF YOU GO
Mill Valley Film Festival
Where: CinéArts Sequoia, 25 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley; Smith Rafael Film Center 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael; BAMPFA, 2120 Oxford St., #2250, Berkeley, and online for select films
When: Oct. 7-17
Tickets: $8 to $60
Contact: (877) 874-6833, mvff.com
Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez: This documentary follows life of late countercultural radical, Zap Comix fixture and creator of cult favorites like “Trashman” and “Big Bitch,” whose blue-collar roots and artistry developed in Buffalo, New York, and would eventually transplant and flourish in San Francisco’s Mission district. (CinéArts Sequoia, Oct. 14, 7:30 p.m.; BAMPFA, Oct. 16, 7 p.m.; streaming online in U.S.)
Bernstein’s Wall: The rich, artistic life of American composer, music educator and late conductor of the New York Philharmonic Leonard Bernstein is chronicled largely via the voice, film footage and intimate letters of Bernstein himself, revealing struggles with his familial relationships and sexuality as well as insights into his many professional triumphs. (CinéArts Sequoia, Oct. 10, 6 p.m.; Smith Rafael Film Center, Oct. 12, 2 p.m.)
Jockey: The “sport of kings” would be impossible to stage without its equine actors and their riders, two of whom — an aging veteran on the way down in his career and an eager youngster on the way up in his career — and their eventual bromance are the main human subjects of the touching drama that portrays the risks and rewards jockeys face. (Smith Rafael Film Center, Oct. 8, 3 p.m., Oct. 9, 11 a.m.)
Reflection: A Walk With Water: The documentary about California’s troubled aquatic ecosystems and longtime mismanagement of resources will provide some solutions to those thirsting for answers to the Golden State’s periodic problem, which has been particularly vexing during the current record-setting drought. (Smith Rafael Film Center, Oct. 14, 7 p.m., Oct. 15, 4 p.m.; streaming online in U.S.)
Women Is Losers: San Francisco of the 1960s and ’70s is the setting for this heartwarming, at times heart-wrenching, drama centered on a Latina high school girl (portrayed with verve by Chilean actress Lorenza Izzo), who navigates difficult relationships with her father (Steven Bauer) and her handsome beau (Bryan Craig)), faces discrimination, must make a fateful pre-Roe v. Wade decision. (Smith Rafael Film Center, Oct. 8, 8 p.m.; streaming online in California)