Despite not revealing any new information about TV’s original power-couple, Amy Poehler’s Lucy and Desi is still a winsome experience. Two aspects are to thank for that: Poehler’s clear affection and light relatability to the subject along with the documentary’s depth of access. Lifting the presentation are never-before-heard private recordings and home movies from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
Personally, I was most compelled by the final 45 minutes, which touches on Lucy and Desi’s divorce, Desi’s downfall, and Lucy shouldering even more weight and eventual ownership of her former husband’s production company, Desilu Productions.
What made I Love Lucy a hit was the still-buoyant comic prowess of Ball and Arnaz, which has aged remarkably well. What made it endearing and ultimately timeless was how it offered a peak into the relationship dynamic of its two leads. We weren’t watching an arranged marriage; we were watching an actual married couple, albeit caricatured for laughs. Certain moments of emotional authenticity you simply couldn’t make up, such as Lucy’s pregnancy announcement, which had her in literal tears of joy. Or the episode where Ball and Arnaz’s real-life son is welcomed into the world; the premiere played in a whopping 68% of American homes in January 1953.
Lucy and Desi is a thoughtful tribute to a couple whose real-life marriage and passion for their TV program etched them into being indispensable figures in the history of television. Ball and Arnaz fought off controversy — be it due to their interracial marriage, Arnaz’s Cuban descent, Ball’s alleged ties to the Communist Party, or the aforementioned televised pregnancy — and continued to break boundaries with their subversive sitcom. Even as their relationship became rocky, the two managed to make beautiful, professional music for almost 20 years through Desilu Productions.
If you’ve seen Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-nominated drama Being the Ricardos — featuring Nicole Kidman and Javier Badem playing Ball and Arnaz, respectively — you’ll see some intersection with Poehler’s documentary. Lucy and Desi touches on the dissolvement of the couple’s marriage as well, which is given added humanization by their daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who pops up to provide context. Her most poignant insight is one I won’t soon forget: Lucy and Desi made the show in an effort to preserve their marriage and spend time with one another. However, their marriage fell apart, and while we, the fans, still have the show, the two actors could never sustain what they ultimately wanted.
Equally fascinating is the thought that Ball and Arnaz both not only went on to remarry (Gary Morton and Edith Mack Hirsch, respectively) but were married to their subsequent partners longer than they were married to one another. The public didn’t necessarily condemn Morton nor Hirsch as much as they looked the other way. Gun to my head, I couldn’t have told you the name “Gary Morton” before watching this documentary. The masses understood why Ball and Arnaz divorced, but that didn’t mean they had to like it.
Legends such as Carol Burnett and Bette Midler appear on occasion in effort to loan some thoughts on Ball’s peerless contributions to the world of television. However, Poehler’s documentary can’t accurately be billed as one of the “talking head” breed. Lucy and Desi comes to life thanks to the audio recordings that add strong contextualization. Even if you know the story, it’s worth revisiting. And admiring.
NOTE: Lucy and Desi is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video.
Directed by: Amy Poehler.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!