Music is a uniquely collaborative art form, and the history of rock 'n' roll, in particular, makes clear that even the most accomplished solo artists require talented sidemen and producers to achieve artistic success and connect with audiences. The right collaborator at the right time can make all the difference to a burgeoning career. Giving one such collaborative artist long-overdue recognition is the purpose of director Jon Brewer's Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story.
A guitarist of rare originality and style, Ronson is anything but obscure to David Bowie fans. Ronson contributed substantially to all five of Bowie's classic, career-making albums released between 1970 and 1973: The Man Who Sold the World, Hunky Dory, The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and The Spiders from Mars, Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups.
As a member of Bowie's live band, the Spiders from Mars, Ronson helped make Bowie a huge star via the British and U.S. tours that followed Ziggy Stardust, Bowie's creative and commercial breakthrough. On stage, Bowie and Ronson had chemistry to match that of The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — or any other iconic duo in rock history.
You have to look closely at the credits of those Bowie albums to see that the classically trained Ronson (who died of liver cancer in 1993 at age 46) often receives an "arranged by" credit, either alone or paired with Bowie. Arranging encompasses instrumentation, orchestration — everything beyond the bare bones of a song, and it's something not often associated with rock 'n' roll or credited on rock albums. Those credits are Bowie's acknowledgement of Ronson, his true creative partner on those wildly original and influential early recordings.
The chronological Beside Bowie traces Ronson and Bowie's colorful shared history as well as Ronson's solo work and stints as sideman or producer for Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, Ian Hunter, Morrissey and many others. Musical colleagues, friends and family virtually line up for filmed interviews and voiceover narration to extol Ronson for his creative talent and his kind and humble nature. Rare photos and archival footage bring his early career with Bowie back to life on screen.
Ronson and the other Spiders were working-class kids from the northern port city of Hull, and their introduction to swinging London — and the young Bowie's gender-fluid world — provide some of the film's lightest moments. By all accounts, Ronson and his band mates initially were taken aback by the makeup and androgynous clothing of the glam-rock era, at least until they discovered how much the band's female fans liked it.
An early manager of Bowie and director of a dozen music documentaries in recent years, the 67-year-old Brewer has the kind of insider's access to key figures required to make Beside Bowie work. The director's straightforward, no-nonsense approach (obviously trying to make the most of a limited budget) won't earn him any awards, but it does reflect Ronson's own work methods and personality.
What Beside Bowie doesn't have is full-length examples of the transcendent music described by nearly everyone in the film, presumably due to licensing fees that are prohibitive for a modest film like this. In their place are scenes such as one in which the late Reed sits in a modern studio, quietly marveling at the isolated orchestral score Ronson wrote for Reed's "Perfect Day" from his album Transformer, which Ronson and Bowie produced in 1972. Fortunately for listeners, the music lives on even when those who made it are gone.