"Beside Bowie-The Mick Ronson Story" Is a Flawed But Essential Documentary For Every Bowie and Mick Ronson Fan

Filmmaker Jon Brewer's Mick Ronson documentary tells the truly sad story of the wholly under-apprecriated guitarist/arranger Mick Ronson, who is of course best known (if he's known at all) for his work with David Bowie. That being the case, Brewer spends a great deal of time (too much time) at the beginning of the 101 minute film on the rise of David Bowie before getting to the fall of Mick Ronson, better known to his friends as "Ronno".

Brewer seems afraid that his film would not find an audience if he didn't push the Bowie connection, including the cover credit "Voice over by DAVID BOWIE", which grossly overstates Bowie's narrative contribution.

Nonetheless, the film does a good job covering Bowie's early years, his casting about to find his musical identity, his dress-wearing sexual identity swapping, which, according to first wife, American-born Angie, featured onscreen then and now, was more exploitative play-acting than genuine and his connecting up with Tony Visconti who was instrumental (literally) in helping Bowie to fashion his sound.

Visconti, on camera, in an interview that appears to have been filmed some time ago, bemoans noisy recording tape, which you'll no doubt find amusing, while discussing early recording efforts. The movie moves on to Ronson's early musical years (he was born in Hull, England, 1946). Ronson was classically trained and played piano, violin and other instruments. Like Visconti, he also could read music. He got the "rock bug" in the early '60s and began playing local clubs as a member of various groups before setting off for London in 1965.

After kicking around London for a few years and making little headway and less money, he returned to Hull and became a municipal groundskeeper. One of his band mates in a group called The Rats returned to Hull to try to convince the contented gardener to travel back to London to become a member of David Bowie's backup band. Though hesitant after his previous experiences, Ronson made the trip and the rest, as they say, is a history in desperate need of telling, which this film manages pretty well so I'm not going to further synopsize it.

It's clear that Ronson was a masterful guitarist with a unique sound that's in part created by a partly open "Wah Wah" pedal that he matter of factly demonstrates on camera and that by the time Bowie's semi-breakthrough album Hunky Dory was recorded, he'd learned from Visconti the art of arranging and had become a brilliant one.

Rick Wakeman, who plays piano on that Ken Scott-David Bowie produced classic, says in his on-screen interview that Ronson, not Bowie, was the real co-producer and that his string arrangements on tracks like "Life on Mars" were, as all listeners know, nothing short of brilliant. While "Michael Ronson" receives arranging credit, it's kind of buried. Unfortunately, Brewer did not get the usually accessible Ken Scott's input on all of this.

Ronson contributes mightily to the breakthrough album Ziggy Stardust... and again, though he gets arranging credits, he apparently doesn't get paid for that work. Angie narrates much of what went on during this period when the group first toured America by bus building an audience and spending more money than it took in. Despite his critical contributions to the record and the live performances, Ronson was basically paid a stipend by MainMain Management run by Tony DeFries, who comes across in this film as one of the villains both because he reputedly made more money from Bowie than Bowie himself earned, and because once Bowie moved on from Ronson, DeFries pushed Ronson, almost against his will, to become a "front man". Ronson could easily have built a successful arranger/producer career. The under-appreciated album Slaughter on 10th Avenue (RCA APL 1-0353) featured a cover shot of Ronson playing a part, but it could very well also sum up his true feelings being pushed to the front when he was really a great side man.

Meanwhile Ronson's contributions to Lou Reed's breakthrough album Transformer were also undervalued. There are crucial interviews with Mott the Hoople's Ian Hunter. Ronson joined his group for a while, later playing with Bob Dylan's band.

The movie skips over the second Ziggy tour, which was not by bus but rather by airplane. That's the segment on which I was on the plane, covering the legendary Carnegie Hall concert, Detroit (where I sat next to Iggy Pop) and Chicago. It's also where I got to meet Mick Ronson, easily the most friendly, approachable, unassuming and charming rock star you could ever hope to meet.

So yes, DeFries comes across as a villain in this story and as is often the case with super-talents, Bowie comes across looking like a user, sad to say.

Speaking of airplanes, I watched this on the flight back from Amsterdam so I can't get into the technical aspects of the film or the sound, though I did listen on my Jerry Harvey Layla in-ear phones, which are amazing. My conclusion is that while this is a somewhat flawed presentation, it's one every Mick Ronson fan should see as should every Bowie fan. In fact, It's indispensable. When it was over, having "met" onscreen, Ronson's wife and family I was left beyond sad by how this super-talented man, who was never a money-grubber, left this planet too young, under-appeciated and with little money to leave his family.

COMMENTS
Mile High Music's picture

There's a fun 15 track soundtrack available on two LP's - one version is all black vinyl and the Limited Edition is all red vinyl. It nicely showcases some of his work with Bowie, Queen, Elton John, Ian Hunter, Joe Elliot (Def Leppard) plus a few others.

Bobsblkwax's picture

By Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson was what I was just listening to tonight. A very under the radar album that shows how much Mick Ronson could make a record so much better just by playing on it.

Great review Michael. I'm a huge Mick Ronson fan.

davip's picture

I moved from London to Hornsea, near Hull and where Mick was County Council gardener, the same year that he moved in the opposite direction back to London. 'Slaughter on 10th Avenue' has been a fixture of my music collection for 40 years now and in a time where various artists cover tracks by The Human League, it's worth remembering who the Human League themselves chose to cover. 'Only After Dark' -- the brilliant original and the brilliantly-different cover -- are two tracks that I would never be without. 'Heaven and Hull' was an appropriate title though -- not a place I've ever missed (although it did have the most fab record store -- the late, great Sidney Scarborough's)...

wozzabear's picture

The real point about Bowie is this - he always relied on collaborators for whom he became a sort of reverse muse. He was undoubtedly a very clever man with a great sense of the zeitgeist and a good ear for a hook but all of his best work needed a stronger musical identity to bring it to the light. Mick Ronson was one such, as were Carlos Alomar, Earl Slick, Iggy, Mike Garson, Stevie Ray, Niles, Luther et al. When he failed to find such a muse/foil, he drifted (Tin Machine, Earthling undsoweiter). And he was a terrible user and discarder of people once they had served their purpose. The crazed cocaine addiction simply underscored this trait. I recommend Dylan Jones' recent book which is an assemblage of comments from a "cast of thousands" who knew him - brilliantly edited. You can make your own mind, or "minds" up as "Chameleon, Corinthian and Caricature" David Jones from sarf London most certainly was and as that line demonstrates, he knew it. Plus, whatever else one might say, that last video is an astonishing work of art.

dazeofheaven's picture

It's easy to judge Bowie for his callousness or his drug use or the constant shape shifting of his musical style. I love Mick Ronson - he was a genius as a guitarist, arranger, collaborator - for both Bowie, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter Morrissey or whoever he decided to bestow his gifts upon (or as the doc shows whoever was smart enough to hire him.) To knock Bowie is to deny that he was the constant genius through his many collaborators. He had roughly a 50 year career and while there were peaks and valleys - the peaks are as high as rock music could go. I don't knock Bowie for needing a "stronger musical personality to bring it all to light." So did almost every major rock artist of the last 60 years to do so. There are very few singular artists that didn't need a muse or a partner and who have had 50 years of great music making under their belt.

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