Tonight’s film, BESIDE BOWIE: THE MICK RONSON STORY is the last installment in a month of Rialto Rockumentaries brought to you by The Sound, every Thursday night in December. It focuses not on a major rock star but on his right hand man, and it’s an interesting series of observations that makes you take another look at an infamous duo.
Directed by former music manager, Jon Brewer, it focuses on guitarist Mick Ronson's contributions to the David Bowie sound, and the lack of credit that he got for it. Brewer – controversially, at times – puts forward the idea that David Bowie (born David Robert Jones) wouldn't have been David Bowie without the help of his most celebrated sideman, Mick Ronson AKA Ronno.
The film views the lauded guitarist and his extraordinary talent mostly through the lens of his time with the Spiders from Mars. Painting Ronno as the humble bloke that he very clearly was, it follows the rise to fame of 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 the cancer that finally killed him in the early '90s.
The modest Ronson was the musical genius behind David Bowie's greatest run of albums, and the film does a good job of exploring the making of those seminal works and how much influence the guitarist had on them. Made before his death, Bowie even provided exclusive voiceovers for the film, which looks at the late Ronson's under-appreciated career as a sideman for artists like Bob Dylan (as a member of the Rolling Thunder Revue), Lou Reed (on Transformer), John Mellencamp (on "Jack and Diane") and main guitarist on five Bowie albums, including Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars and Aladdin Sane. "Both Mick Ronson and David Bowie together were the ultimate duo. They performed and recorded like magicians and created masterpieces that will live on forever," director Jon Brewer has said, and he does a damn good job of proving that, as well as providing many an insight that will surprise even great fans.
I was interested to find out that the quiet guitarist from Kingston upon Hull 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 created, and hits. We learn that the first ever strings arrangement Ronson wrote was for the mesmerising track, "Life on Mars?" on 1971's Hunky Dory. When Yes keyboardist Rick Wakeman (a Bowie collaborator back then) sits down at the piano to recreate it you really do have to sit back and say, damn. The guy really knew his stuff.
But back to the Bowie voiceover which although exclusive and interesting, really does seem a bit canned and heavily edited. The film begins with a story from Bowie about how the two met, and then the observations that come up later sound increasingly guarded.The two men remained in off-and-on contact after their split in the early 1970s, and occasionally even worked together, but it almost sounds like Bowie is a little reticent about the amount of credit Brewer is giving Ronson’s contributions. It also paints him as a bit of a twat, which could be entirely accurate too.
In conclusion, the film does feel a little incomplete, but there are some great interviews with Ronson’s family and other collaborators in there and leaves you with the feeling that he was a talent most definitely gone too soon. Its major strength is depicting him as a likeable bloke — one who just maybe was the best thing that ever happened to Bowie.
BESIDE BOWIE premieres Thursday 28 December 8.30pm on Rialto Channel. Part of Rialto Rockumentaries, proudly brought to you by The Sound FM.
Watch the trailer here