Film Review: Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story

A beautiful film documenting some of the most groundbreaking rock music of the ’70s and the major contribution Mick Ronson offered well beyond being “Bowie’s guitar player.”
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If you really, truly love rock music, if it’s an unquenchable passion that can’t be sated merely by listening to records or going to concerts, then the surplus of quality music docs being made right now might help.

There are few rock stars from the past half-century as captivating and enigmatic as the late David Bowie. Much has already been written about him, but there isn’t nearly as much known about the contributions Michael “Mick” Ronson brought to Bowie’s earliest records.

With many a music doc under his belt and a background as Bowie’s early manager, director Jon Brewer ends up being the perfect filmmaker to tell Ronson’s story. It’s immediately obvious how many of Beside Bowie’s interview subjects have known Brewer long enough to be quite candid and forthright, which is often hard to get in the best of docs.

Brewer clearly spent extensive time with longtime Bowie producer Tony Visconti, singer/songwriter Ian Hunter, keyboardist Rick Wakeman, photographer Mick Rock (of course) and even the late Lou Reed, to create this portrait of the musician.

The movie spends much of its time on Ronson’s most famous recorded and live work, with the subjects talking specifically about Bowie, but they always eventually get back to Ronson and how his distinctive tone and style of guitar playing transitioned Bowie from pop to rock. The film is mostly filled with gushing praise for the late musician, with almost everyone giving Ronson massive credit for the layered sound of Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust.

Anyone who worships those early Bowie records will cherish this documentary’s look inside the studio at how those records were made. You learn things like the fact that Ronson’s first-ever string arrangement was for Bowie’s classic “Life on Mars.”

At times, Beside Bowie is more of a movie for musicians or music nerds rather than casual Bowie fans, as Ronson and some of his collaborators talk about the nitty-gritty of composition and arranging music. While watching, you might wonder whether Brewer had been working on this film for a long time to be able to have footage of Reed talking specifically about Ronson’s string arrangements. Brewer even has a decent video interview done with Ronson before his death in 1993, and that covers quite a bit of ground on its own.

Beside Bowie also includes many great anecdotes about the legendary Ziggy Stardust tour, which included all the rock excess one would expect in the ’70s, but was also a tour that broke Bowie bigger in the States than anyone would ever expect. The Spiders of Mars quickly flamed out, as Bowie disbanded them at the end of that 1973 tour. Ronson sounds more than a little bitter about being unceremoniously dumped by Bowie, especially since he never received the well-deserved recognition or royalties for his contributions to the records and tour.

Ronson eventually goes back to work with Mott the Hoople and Ian Hunter after attempting his own solo career. During these years, he also had some of his most high-profile productions with John Mellencamp’s American Fool, which included the hit “Jack and Diane,” and later, Morrissey’s album Your Arsenal.

Ronson and Bowie do eventually reunite 20 years later when they play together at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert at Wembley Stadium, no one realizing Ronson would die from liver cancer a little over a year later.

Often, these types of docs are either too long or lacking something important, but Brewer’s tribute to Ronson is the perfect length to keep you invested. Even the title Brewer chose for his film is intriguing. If misread, it might be suggesting there was more to Ronson “besides Bowie.” Instead, it’s meant to say that Ronson was there standing “beside Bowie.” It’s a big difference in context, and it’s quite clever in that respect.

Brewer’s film perfectly captures Mick Ronson’s achievements and contributions to rock music, creating a touching tribute to the man whose early work with Bowie helped pave the way for the artist he would later become.

Click here for cast and crew information