'Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story': Film Review

Of interest to Ronson or Bowie fans but hardly enlightening.
9/1/2017

Former music manager Jon Brewer's doc focuses on guitarist Mick Ronson's contributions to the David Bowie sound.

Putting forward the idea that David Bowie (born David Robert Jones) wouldn't have been David Bowie without the help of his most celebrated sideman, Jon Brewer's Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story views the lauded guitarist mostly through the lens of the Spiders from Mars. Incomplete but benefiting from warm interviews with Ronson's loved ones, the doc gives some idea of his greatness but is better at depicting him as a likeable, modest bloke — one who just happened to be the best thing that happened to Bowie. Though it will be welcomed by hardcore rock nerds on video, theatrical prospects are very slim.

Offering almost exactly nothing about Ronson's boyhood, the film begins with a bit of voiceover from Bowie about how the two met. The star pops up a few times during the film (never on camera), and his clips have the canned feel of an audiobook. The two men remained in off-and-on contact after their split in the early 1970s, and occasionally even worked together. But Bowie's cautious-sounding contributions here make one wonder if he felt Brewer's project was intent on giving Ronson too much credit.

Well, there are plenty of other people ready to laud the guitarist from Kingston upon Hull, who learned piano and violin as a boy and who, after his first bit of work with Bowie, took some time off to study orchestration. Producer Tony Visconti recalls how the curious Ronson watched everything he did at the mixing board as well — not content just to play a killer guitar solo, but wanting to understand how records were made. We're told that the first strings arrangement Ronson wrote was for "Life on Mars?" on 1971's Hunky Dory. If memory doesn't remind you how brilliant that arrangement was, Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (a Bowie collaborator back then) sits down at the piano here to walk you through it.

Unfortunately, the film has fewer wonderful moments like this than it might, thanks to an inordinate interest in the details of showbiz management. Brewer was part of the crew managing Bowie in the early days, and understandably cares more than most viewers do about Main Man, the management company that helped make Bowie a star. We get a lot of who-introduced-who here, and while the details of tour operations do become relevant — as when core band members realize how dramatically underpaid they are — they often divert us from more interesting storylines.

Still, insights into Ronson's personality can be had here from everyone from his sister and his wife to Ian Hunter, the Mott the Hoople frontman who worked with him often. They paint a coherent picture of Ronson as the masculine foil to the dress-wearing Bowie, a performer who was as essential to the Ziggy Stardust stage show as he was in the studio. They also describe a man who was working as a gardener when Bowie hired him, who knew nothing about money and whose naïveté left him nearly destitute when he was diagnosed with cancer in the early '90s.

A great many personal details are omitted thanks to the movie's Ziggy-mindedness, and some of the omissions are understandable. But the movie devotes an inexcusably short time to the many years Ronson worked after the Spiders from Mars disbanded — and, Hunter aside, talks to nearly nobody from that time. Where is John Mellencamp, who in the past has freely credited Ronson with making "Jack & Diane" a hit record? Where is Morrissey, who had him produce Your Arsenal? (When he was first asked to go meet Moz and discuss a possible job, Ronson said he couldn't make the meeting. He was committed to babysit for his sister.)

After glossing quickly over two decades of non-Bowie work, Brewer returns to encomium mode, cutting from one adulatory quote to another — many of the speakers inadvertently suggesting that, however highly they think of him, they think Ronson means little outside the context of Bowie's magnificent career.

Production company: Emperor Media
Distributor: Parade Deck Films
Director-producer: Jon Brewer
Screenwriter: Scott Rowley
Executive producers: Laura Royko
Editor: Zyggy

99 minutes

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