Recalling Rick Nelson And His Famous Family

Posted: November 16, 1987

Although it's not the Rick Nelson documentary that music fans might want, Rick Nelson: A Brother Remembers (Disney Channel, 8 p.m.) is the Rick Nelson documentary that television fans will cherish. This 60-minute look at the actor and rock star was produced and directed by his older brother, David, and, as you might expect from a fraternal remembrance made for cable's Disney Channel, it has nothing but nice things to say about its subject, who died in a plane crash on New Year's Eve in 1985.

Much of A Brother Remembers is taken up with clips from The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, the classic family sitcom in which little Ricky first came to prominence. It's a measure of the way television has catered to its baby- boomer audience that most of the scenes shown here are familiar to anyone who has occasionally glanced at the black-and-white reruns now in syndication.

What David Nelson adds to the cute scenes of Ricky acting like a bratty little brother is context: We are also shown footage of Ozzie Nelson as a jazz singer and bandleader in the 1930s, as David offers a fascinating portrait of a father who knew how to turn family into business product.

The Nelsons - "exaggerated to make the family funny every week," notes David - were a lucrative venture for Ozzie, who produced, wrote and directed on the show.

And when the teenage Ricky wanted to impress a girlfriend enamored of Elvis Presley by making his own rock-and-roll, Ozzie obliged by tacking a little scene of his youngest son wailing Fats Domino's "I'm Walking" onto the tail end of an Ozzie and Harriet episode - Ozzie was so much of a big-band fan that he didn't realize that rock was going to be big business. The music segment was such a wild success that it became a semi-regular feature of Ozzie and Harriet and served to launch Ricky's recording career.

A Brother Remembers takes Ricky Nelson's musical accomplishments for granted, as the inevitable result of a show-biz upbringing, but that neglects the true nature of Ricky's achievement. There were scores of teen rockers who followed in Elvis' wake, and most of them quickly disappeared into the mists of mediocrity. Ricky, however, hammered out something new - a California version of rockabilly - and surrounded himself with first-class musicians.

The result was a string of hit singles that no teen idol has ever surpassed. David Nelson reels off his brother's commercial successes - more than 60 million records sold, ranking him fourth among all-time record-sellers - but it's clear that big brother has no real feeling for Ricky's music.

Just how much it meant is apparent during the most revealing moment on A Brother Remembers, a scene from a 1970s interview in which Rick (he'd dropped the "y" in a move to maturation at the start of that decade) discusses his first public appearance.

In the segment, Rick says that his pals, the vocal group the Four Preps, had invited him to open a show for them in the early '60s, and that his rock- and-roll crooning proceeded to upstage them. Girls screamed, and backstage, Rick says, people started calling him "Mr. Nelson."

"I really liked that," says Rick, "I really liked being waited on." This is the cheerful admission of an upper-class kid with a middle-class upbringing thrilled to be involved in a form of music pioneered by lower-class kids, and his honesty is utterly beguiling. His naked ambition may not square with the purposes of the Disney Channel's family entertainment, but it's great to hear it expressed in the midst of this reverent documentary.

The Disney Channel is unscrambling itself this week to offer all cable subscribers a look, in the hope of inducing them to sign up and pay for the extra channel after that. If it continues with programming like Rick Nelson, Disney may have some success.

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