“Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story,” directed by Jon Brewer, documents Mick Ronson’s underappreciated career as a rock guitarist, a multi-instrumentalist, producer and songwriter. The film focuses mostly on the late Ronson’s collaboration with David Bowie in The Spiders from Mars, but also details his work with artists such as Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, John Mellencamp and Morrissey. Featuring interviews with Ronson himself, Hunter, Bowie’s first wife Angie Bowie, producer Tony Visconti, Lou Reed (who made me laugh by saying Ronson’s northern English accent was too hard to understand), photographer Mick Rock, Queen’s Roger Taylor, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, and more – including off-screen dialogue from Bowie – the movie argues that Ronson was never given enough credit, and was underpaid, for his work as an arranger and producer in The Spiders from Mars. He is also described as having played a major role in Bowie’s transition from his early folkier sound to rock n’ roll.
Ronson is generally thought of as Bowie’s lead guitarist, but he was a classically trained musician who played violin and piano as well as guitar, and he wrote string arrangements and worked closely with keyboardist Rick Wakeman and pianist Mike Garson. The film portrays Ronson as multi-talented, but straightforward, sincere and rather humble. These characteristics are apparent in his own interviews as well, for example, in his simple way of describing his unique guitar style and sound. This was a man who, when first offered the chance to work with Morrissey, responded with, “Oh, I can’t do Friday, I’m babysitting for me sister.”
“Beside Bowie” is careful not to claim that Bowie deserves less credit for his musical genius, or that he deliberately downplayed Ronson’s contributions. Elliott, however, is up front about being angry with Bowie for moving on to another guitarist after abruptly ending The Spiders. Angie Bowie also expresses deep regret at the way that his dissolution of the band left bassist Trevor Bolder and drummer Mick Woodmansey out of a job. David Bowie is, of course, not present to give his side of the story, and one has to wonder what differences of opinion, or justifications, might have been included.
One thing the film expresses well is that Bowie and Ronson complemented each other perfectly onstage, playing their roles of gender-bending “alien” and handsome rock n’ roller. It was a dynamic that Ronson needed more than Bowie, because he was not comfortable being the frontman himself; this became clear when he was pushed into going solo immediately after the Spiders’ end, and was much less successful on his own. He continued to perform and record, however, with an impressive roster of artists, until his tragic death of cancer in 1993. I was surprised to learn that it was his work I was hearing on John Mellencamp’s “Jack & Diane,” for instance, or Morrissey’s “Your Arsenal.” Ronson struggled financially throughout that time, but he remained friends with Bowie, joining him onstage at many concerts.
“Beside Bowie” is a straightforward documentary, but its story and narrators are interesting enough to make more artful filmmaking unnecessary. It has a good dose of humor and is touching as well. The film has been playing at the Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills this week and will be available on Blu-ray/DVD and VOD, beginning October 27th.