Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story Directed and Produced by Jon Brewer
Documentary featuring David Bowie, Mick Ronson, Angie Bowie, Ian Hunter
Voiceover by David Bowie
Emperor Media Ltd
Theatrical Release date: September 1, 2017 (Limited) Blu-ray Release (via Mvd Visual): October 13, 2017
A new documentary on Mick Ronson, the late guitar player who was one of the key figures in the early success of David Bowie when he became a superstar in the early 1970s, has been recently released called Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story. The film, which includes voiceover by Bowie (who passed away in early 2016), attempts to give more of a spotlight to a man who in essence lived in Bowie’s shadow, something which unfortunately also happens here in this documentary, whether it was intentional or not in its presentment.
The title itself, Beside Bowie, tells us that that’s exactly what Mick Ronson was during those crucial and in hindsight pioneering and legendary days with Bowie as a Spider from Mars. But it also suggests that there may have been someone or something besides Bowie that may have been a key factor to his success. And without question, it was the man affectionately dubbed “Ronno” by his closest friends, Mick Ronson.
With the aid of archival footage, talking-head testimonials ranging from important figures in the business end to family members and key people he played with (everyone from Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter, Lou Reed, Queen’s Roger Taylor, Yes keyboardist extraordinaire Rick Wakeman, and Bowie himself through vintage footage and an eerie voiceover), Beside Bowie makes a powerful and strong claim just how important and ultimately (explained in a somewhat gentle manner) screwed over Ronson got in the galaxy of Bowie in terms of never really being treated, monetarily or otherwise, as more than a sideman.
Eschewing a kind of “just the facts, ma’mm” treatment of Ronson’s early life and what led to his extraordinary talents on guitar, which gave him a kind of sound that was unique all to his own yet instantly recognizable, a kind of large sound that cut like a dagger through an amplifier, Beside Bowie instead uses Bowie’s story as a kind of capsule in which the guitarist gets applied and not vice versa.
Done with brisk pacing and snappy editing, intermingled with Bowie’s music of the period — familiar and otherwise — we get a kind of quick visual Cliff’s Notes on what led Ronson to become a major factor in shaping the success of Bowie, but nothing that tells where his passion came from, how the man got so good, and why. Quick anecdotes from people like famed producer Tony Visconti unveil the tale of how Ronson essentially followed him around in the control booth to learn how to produce and arrange, but it’s all matter of fact and nothing to understand why the man’s passions ran so high. We see Ronson in archival interviews bright and pleasant, intelligent and with dry wit, full of stories, and even playing some guitar at one point, but again, in terms of the music, we hear a solo here or a solo there over the footage, along with a lot of what we see with documentaries of this ilk: pans on photos and newly shot footage and stock footage, all intermixed with the talking heads. For a documentary that’s supposed to showcase how great Ronson is, it’s one thing to hear everyone talk about how great he is, but perhaps a little bit more focus on seeing and hearing the man actually play would have been even more successful.
Understandably it would be hard to make a documentary on Ronson without such a shadow of David Bowie looming, and it’s nice to hear everyone laud Ronson at every turn. Most everybody tells the tales of how Bowie wouldn’t be this or that without Ronson; Lou Reed talks of what a wonderful creator and string arranger he was for his seminal Transformer album. But again, one watches all this glitter and circumstance and wonders what this would be like if perhaps given a more royal treatment to Ronson and not having the feel of a Bowie documentary ultimately.
Again, in order to introduce and gain a lot of layman fans who for years if not decades have heard Ronson’s stellar work time and time again and most not even knowing who the man was on those albums, the enormous hovering of Bowie would be needed. And it’s telling how the third act of this documentary is highly rushed, squeezing in an “I didn’t know that anecdote” here and there: mentioning Ronson is responsible for the main guitar sound on John Mellencamp’s No. 1 early 80s hit “Jack and Diane” or working with Morrissey on a solo album, or finally reuniting with Bowie near the end of his life during the Queen tribute to Freddie Mercury in the early ’90s to finally play the song “Heroes” with the man, something that the two of them had never done before. It all culminates in realizing that while entertaining, it’s all much ado about something in that regard, there needed to be a lot of padding in order to make Ronson’s story stretch into the just over 90-minute mark.
But in a way, why carp? Mick Ronson was a legendary powerhouse who may have not had the kind of money and fame as the man who was just to his right on stage and record did when he was a Spider from Mars, but in a way (and the documentary rightly makes this claim), anyone who has really and truly followed the career of David Bowie can attest in those early glory years of wondrous sonic noise and production, that Ronson was the true number one in a lot of things that got credited to David Bowie. That’s a fact.
If one comes away with anything from Beside Bowie it would be what most of us already knew: that Ronson was the true ace in the deck and that David Bowie might have had quite a different career in many ways if it wasn’t for his direction, whether the world knows it or not. Besides Bowie gets an A for effort, but a distinctly lower grade for its portrayal of a key figure in rock and roll who didn’t get the attention he deserved at the time, just like strangely he doesn’t get the full attention he deserves in a film made about him.
“Lady Stardust,” one of the peak songs on David Bowie’s classic Ziggy Stardust album, was originally written for Marc Bolan, the late glam trailblazer who led T-Rex, but a few lines in that song sum up the importance of Mick Ronson and how, regardless of whether this documentary just falls short in showing it, it really showcases how incredible the man really was: “…and he was alright, the band was altogether, yes he was alright, the song went on forever.”
And regardless of what one thinks about Beside Bowie, the man that was Mick Ronson and his legacy will go on forever.