Roughly three years before David Bowie died, the man who sold the world sat down with a recorder to capture his memories of Spiders From Mars guitarist Mick Ronson on tape. He was urged to do so at the behest of Mick’s widow Suzi Ronson, Bowie’s former hairdresser and the creator of his legendary Ziggy Stardust orange space mullet. Mick had been dead for two decades at that point, but few people outside of hardcore Bowie aficionados were aware of his axeman’s massive contributions to popular music – and she wanted to alleviate that. “David was worried at that time that Suzi might not have been up to making a documentary,” says filmmaker Jon Brewer. “But what he did for her was create these audio bites that were almost like narration.”
Suzi Ronson eventually turned over the Bowie tapes and a lot of raw film to Brewer, a rock manager that worked with everyone from Yes to Mick Taylor – and even the Thin White Duke himself in the 1970s. In recent years, however, he’d become a highly accomplished rock documentarian (B.B. King: The Life of Riley, Nat King Cole: Afraid of the Dark.) More importantly, Brewer knew Bowie’s story inside and out, going all the way back to his unsuccessful attempts to break the former David Jones in America right around the time he released The Man Who Sold the World in 1970. He also knew Ronson and shared Suzi’s dream to finally tell the guitarist’s story on the big screen – which resulted in Beside Bowie: The Mick Ronson Story, currently streaming on Hulu.
Woven together with thrilling archival footage, Bowie’s beyond-the-grave narration and the new interviews, the film tells the tale of a guitar virtuoso from the working class of Hull in Northern England that found himself thrust into the middle of the Glam Rock scene just as it was finding a global audience. He became the Keith Richards to David Bowie’s Mick Jagger in Spiders From Mars, but it all ended on July 3rd, 1973 when Bowie shocked the world by announcing the group would never play together again. (Brewer also cast a wide net when seeking out interview subjects, landing Bowie’s ex-wife Angie, producer Tony Visconti, Hunky Dory pianist Rick Wakeman, Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter and Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, a Bowie/Ronson super fan that got to sing backup for them at their final onstage appearance at the 1992 Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness.)
The heart of the movie concerns Ronson’s working relationship with Bowie and the instrumental role he played in the creation of Hunky Dory and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. “I think, personally, that Mick Ronson should have got more credit with respect for the writing and certainly arranging all of that material,” says Brewer. “It should have been credited to Bowie/Ronson … and I think Bowie would have said that, too. As Morrissey said, he was the balls to Bowie at that time. He was the engine.”
But once the Spiders From Mars ended, the artist’s management made the disastrous decision to try and turn Ronson into a solo star. “He never was a frontman,” says Brewer. “What he was was a great guitarist and a great arranger and probably would have been a great, great producers had he lived.”
After the Spiders From Mars, Ronson had a short stint as a guitarist in Mott the Hoople and played with Bob Dylan on the Rolling Thunder Revue in 1975/76, though the film reveals he never much cared for Dylan’s music. In the 1980s, Ronson arranged John Mellencamp’s “Jack and Diane” and produced many other albums, but money was always tight – and escaping Bowie’s shadow proved to be impossible. When Ronson found out he had terminal liver cancer in the early 1990s, he began work on the solo album Heaven and Hull, which features a reunion with David Bowie. They also worked together on 1993’s Black Tie White Noise. “They were going to do all sorts of things together in the 1990s,” says Brewer. “But they just ran out of time.”