On its surface, “Lucy and Desi” looks like a fairly by-the-books documentary. There’s little to its style or approach that sets it apart from countless other docs. But don’t be misled. In addition to its compelling subjects, the feature is energized by director Amy Poehler who isn’t just throwing out facts and old footage. Instead she frames her film as the love story of two beloved entertainers who forever changed television and our culture.
That warm and sincere focus is what makes Poehler’s film such a delight. As you might expect, the movie will resonate most with those familiar with the wild and improbable success story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. But Poehler’s approach results in something that’s both endearing and insightful which should open the documentary up to anyone regardless of their history (or lack of) which the iconic couple.
“Lucy and Desi” is full of entertainment history but it’s also intimate and personal. One of my favorite touches is in how much is told in the couple’s own words and through their own voices. Clips from a number television and radio interviews give us their true perspectives on the ups and down of their incredible journey together. Meanwhile interviews with their son, Desi Arnez Jr. and daughter, Luci Arnez Luckin shed even more light but from yet another personal angle.
And of course, we also hear from entertainers who not only knew them but were inspired by their work – Carol Burnett, Charo, Bette Midler, among others highlight the impact Lucy and Desi had on generations of performers. Words like “fearless”, “effortless” and “extraordinary” often were used especially in describing Lucy. She had a natural talent for comedy, but she was also a fiery straight-shooter which proved invaluable in an industry ran predominantly by men.
Poehler rightly gives time to the couple’s years prior to meeting. As Lucy left New York City for Hollywood, Desi was escaping Cuba for Miami. Only a short time later, the two met for the first time in the commissary at RKO Pictures and were married six months later. From there the couple’s personal and professional lives took off in large part thanks to the massive success of “I Love Lucy”.
Poehler takes time to stress the importance of “I Love Lucy” and the impact it made on the television industry, both on screen and behind the camera. We hear about how each show was performed in front of 400 studio audience members and with no retakes. About how they once did 41 shows in 41 weeks. And how “I Love Lucy” would help establish the rerun model that would be used forever after. And of course there was the relationships with their co-stars Vivian Vance and William Frawley.
Their business partnership extended beyond “I Love Lucy”. The film covers the formation and success of their own studio, Desilu Productions which would produce such shows as “The Untouchables”, “Mission: Impossible”, and “Star Trek”. The couple would grow Desilu into the second-largest independent television production company in the United States. And of course there was their later purchase of RKO Studios.
But in “Lucy and Desi” it always comes back to the personal – in this case the relationship between the two stars. The stress and demands of fame hurt their marriage leading to an eventual split. But as Poehler shows us, there remained a deep connection between them even as they were miles apart and with new spouses. The two loved each other as much as the country loved them. By stressing that truth, Poehler’s film, though very much a documentary, comes from a place closer to the heart. And that’s a choice which makes “Lucy and Desi” stand out.
VERDICT – 4 STARS