There are dozens and dozens of books and films on David Bowie. However, there are far fewer films about the collaborators who helped Brixton boy David Jones become a global icon to live up to the times.
Fortunately, this oversight was corrected with “Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story”. The gripping and poignant documentary traces the life story and impact of guitarist Mick Ronson, who was integral to Bowie’s creative evolution from the 1970s LP “The Man Who Sold the World”.
“I really wanted to make a movie that basically honors David as well as Mick Ronson, and Mick Ronson as well as David, to show that they are partners,” said director Jon Brewer. “And they were. And they made great music together. Mick Ronson was such a great arranger, and a great man, [and] a good musician. “
While the documentary certainly contains a lot of Bowie – in fact, Brewer considers Ronson the musician who “took [Bowie] into rock and roll “and out of its folk era – it’s a perfect complement to other films out there. In fact,” Beside Bowie “is a heartfelt and complete portrayal that pays equal attention to all facets Ronson’s talents, he co-produced Lou Reed’s “Transformer” with Bowie; was the accompanist and flagship of Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter during the latter’s imperial period in the late 1970s; and , for years, has been a very talented arranger. (In fact, Cougar’s John “Jack & Diane” wouldn’t have been the success he is without Ronson’s magic touch.)
Of course, the Kingston upon Hull native also had a magnetic guitar style – a triumph of melody, tone, and restraint that resonated with an entire generation of musicians, including Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott.
In a separate interview with Salon, Elliott, who adds an insightful commentary in “Beside Bowie” as a talking head, recalls listening to “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” from 1972 and changing his outlook of the world.
“There was something about Mick Ronson’s guitar playing that… I felt I understood even though I couldn’t, at the time, play more than three chords myself. I could listen to his lead play. , and he really spoke to me – so other players, like Robin Trower, all these Hendrix-style players, I didn’t quite get it.
“The solo from ‘Moonage Daydream’, or the solo from ‘Soul Love’ or the solo from ‘Starman’ at the end – that was the melody of it,” he adds. “And it didn’t sound cheesy; it sounded like a real guitarist, but without showing it. He was playing for the song, not for his ego. That’s how I connected with him.”
“Beside Bowie” is also anchored in an archival interview with Ronson filmed about a year before his death, which helps give the film its voice and ideas, and stunning vintage performance footage, including the famous performance “Top of the Pops ”from“ Starman ”where Bowie put his arm around Ronson’s shoulder.
The move was seismic and became one of the most defining moments in Bowie’s career. “The point is, there aren’t any other photos with David Bowie putting his arm around someone else on stage,” Brewer notes. “He never did, and he always felt that Mick Ronson and David Bowie were hip together on those early things. It was a great time.”
Brewer was drawn into Bowie and Ronson’s orbit in the early 1970s through his working relationship with Laurence Myers at Gem Productions, a production company that licensed albums by several groups (including Bowie) to many major labels. “At one point [Gem] got me involved because I knew everything about booking concerts and the road and the rock’n’roll side that neither of these guys understood, ”Brewer recalls. “I basically became the man who talked to artists.
“And I met David Bowie, and David Bowie said, ‘Meet Mick Ronson,’ and that’s how we started our relationship. I worked very closely with him on ‘Hunky Dory’ and building the base that we were going to launch Ziggy [Stardust], really.”
Because he knew Ronson so well, Brewer says he didn’t uncover any unexpected information about his old friend while making the documentary. “I knew Mick pretty well. Mick was the sweetest, most humble person. He was brought up in the Mormon religion, [and] the Mormon religion in England is very different from the Mormon religion in America.
“He was very respectful to his family, where he came from. I don’t think he ever wanted gold records on the wall or the pool. What we wanted was to be recognized for his music. . And I think he was. “
Brewer was surprised to learn, however, that Bowie and Ronson were gravitating towards each other creatively towards the end of the latter’s life. “I had no idea that they were going to come and do something together in the 90s. And I don’t think a lot of people knew that Mick was in constant contact with David at that time. But I quickly found out, because then tapes started popping up and archives started popping up. And I’m like, ‘Wow, someone must have known something.’ “
As “Beside Bowie” unfolds, the possibility of what collaborations might have been – and what music itself was lost with Ronson’s untimely death – gives the documentary a poignant sparkle. However, the film is also dynamic in the way it highlights Ronson’s skill and power, including his notable performances at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness in 1992.
“David refused to play him unless Mick Ronson was with him on stage. They set him up, and he’s playing ‘Heroes’, which he always should have played at the start anyway. He was everything. just wonderful. I mean, the whole … about that show was wonderful. Mick Ronson played his heart out, and that was the end of the line, really. “
Ronson died about a year after the tribute concert from complications from liver cancer, which ended up dashing hopes of a summit between him and Bowie. But Brewer thinks that if the musician had lived, the old friends would have teamed up for a “fantastic album” that “everyone would have surrendered and hailed”, among others. “[Ronson] would have gone on and on, and probably become one of the greatest arrangers of all time. “
Ronson has left behind a whole slew of recorded works, which are also getting a well-deserved boost on the new “Beside Bowie” soundtrack, which is available now. Brewer worked with Universal Records to compile the release – and while there was obviously no shortage of material the director could have included, his approach was to organize the release “with ears and knowledge of it. that I think Mick Ronson was, “as he puts it.
“First of all, I didn’t want to make a Bowie album out of it,” Brewer says. “And I don’t think they would have let me make a Bowie album out of it. What we decided to do was use three or four songs that weren’t obvious songs. I didn’t want to. not put ‘Jean Genie’, or ‘Changes’, or something like that, because we have them on every other album out there. “
Refreshingly, the soundtrack avoids obvious songs. Bowie is certainly well represented: there are a few highlights from the catalog to choose from; a version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” with him on vocals; and the majestic “All the Young Dudes” and “Heroes” from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert. But other songs on the album highlight Ronson’s more subtle contributions – like his work on Ian Hunter’s “Once Bitten, Twice Shy” and a version of Elton John’s “Madman Across the Water” with his contributions. on the guitar.
The collection also includes a previously unreleased cover of Joe Elliott addressing “This Is for You” by Ronson. The rather moving song features a piano reminiscent of former Bowie pianist Mike Garson, who was by design: Elliott tells Salon he enlisted the late Dick Decent, whom he played with in Bowie Cybernauts’ cover band. , to contribute – and specifically asked that sounds like Garson.
“He was the perfect hybrid between [Bowie pianists] Rick Wakeman and [Mike] Garson, ”recalls Elliott of Decent. And the pianist studied quickly: after making the request, Elliott had a mix in his email the next morning, he said with a big laugh. “He did it overnight. He just spent two hours thinking, ‘OK, I can have it.’ “
“It was really a gift from me to Mick,” Elliott said of the song’s cover. “I just wanted to give something back, because I was the kid who when I was 12, looking at the inside cover of ‘Ziggy Stardust’, four squares of Bowie and the spiders, I would watch Mick as much as I watch Bowie – it was Jagger-Richards thing, it was Page-Plant, it was Perry-Tyler.
When talking to both Elliott and Brewer, it’s clear how much the two men respect and revere Ronson, both as a musician and as a person. Director Brewer is especially happy that “Beside Bowie” is there in the universe, albeit slightly bittersweet.
“Everyone comes up to me and says, ‘What a great movie’, but I just think it might have come a little late,” says Brewer. “I would have loved to have had this when they were both alive. I just think it would have had more of an impact, since they were both still there.
“I think the movie did exactly what it needed to do – and that’s make a mark or a gravestone and say ‘It was those two people. They were brothers and they were partners and they were successful. together.'”