Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story
Portrait of unsung guitar god lets you doc out with your rock out
Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story (2017)
Directed by Jon Brewer
Cast: Mick Ronson, David Bowie, Angie Bowie, Lou Reed
Any Bowie fan worth their eyeliner has surely watched D.A. Pennebaker’s essential 1973 concert documentary Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. Despite lousy lighting conditions and a dodgy sound mix (the film labored through post-production for 10 years), it remains an essential window into the genius that was David Bowie. But anyone who has witnessed that final performance at London’s Hammersmith Odeon by Bowie’s seminal band has walked away with an additional, unshakable impression. Mesmerizing as Bowie is, it’s impossible to ignore the fit lad with the waterfall of blond hair playing next to him. Guitarist Mick Ronson leaves an indelible impression in that film, with his billowing pirate shirt and his muscular guitar chords. He is the very definition of the term “Guitar God.” And his interplay with Bowie—one gender-bending and ethereal, one manly and down-
Sadly, Ronson’s impact on the music industry was short-lived. Few, aside from dedicated rock historians, know his name. Now comes Jon Brewer’s musical documentary Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story to set the record straight. Brewer is a well-known figure in the music industry himself, and he has more than a vested interest in this story, having managed the career of Mr. Bowie and his mates over the time period the film largely covers.
The film rolls back the clock, picking up with Bowie in the early years of his career, playing folk clubs in remote London neighborhoods. Thanks to a lot of atmospheric archival footage, Beside Bowie sets the stage for each time period it visits—from the anything-goes post-hippie era of 1960s England to the gritty Andy Warhol days of 1970s New York City. Looking to fill out his band in the wake of “Space Oddity,” Bowie meets up with a friend of his drummer. A working-class kid from Hull, Mick Ronson cut his teeth playing with a number of local rock outfits, including local legends The Rats. Aside from his distinctive guitar style, Ronson was a classically trained musician. He quickly moved into Bowie’s commune-like flat, Haddon Hall, in South London and the two started making beautiful music together.
Beside Bowie carefully lays out the case that Ronson wasn’t just one of the greatest unsung guitarists of the rock era, but an essential alchemical part of David Bowie’s groundbreaking sound. It was after Ronson’s arrival that Bowie segued from the folky, acoustic sound of his early albums to the full-blown electric sound that defined his glam rock period. Countless musicians, contemporaries and luminaries (Angie Bowie, Ian Hunter, Roger Taylor, Rick Wakeman, Lou Reed, Mick Rock, Tony Visconti, Glen Matlock) testify to the fact that Ronson did the majority of the arrangements on Bowie’s Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In addition, he was almost single-handedly responsible for the sound of Mott the Hoople’s All the Young Dudes and Lou Reed’s Transformer—two seminal albums traditionally credited entirely to Bowie.
Thanks to archival interviews with Ronson himself (who passed away in 1993), we get a pretty accurate picture of what the musician was like. Humble and hardworking, he may have been his own worst enemy when it came to fame. Lacking the magnificent ego of a chameleon like Bowie, Ronson was happy to labor away in the shadows. Some exclusive voice-over commentary by David Bowie (who left us in 2016), sheds a bit of light on their relationship. Bowie doesn’t get into the personal politics of it much, but it’s clear that his professional respect for Ronson remained undimmed over the years. Bowie’s ex-wife Angie, brash and boisterous as ever, is happy to sing Ronson’s praises. Musicians like Wakeman and Visconti are more detailed in their assessment of what made Ronson such a musical genius. Sit in front of a mixing board and listen to the orchestration on Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” and you’ll realize—almost instantly—the depth of Ronson’s magnificent talents.
The film spins on past Ronson’s Spiders from Mars years, detailing his time sidelining with Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, John Mellencamp and others. It’s an impressive legacy, and one that this rockin’ doc helps solidify in celluloid. Beside Bowie provides an enlightening crash-course in the glitter-