Amy Poehler’s smart and affecting “Lucy and Desi” suggests that the director understands subjects Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz — the power couple behind the ratings juggernaut “I Love Lucy” — on an emotional level. She loves them. On its face, taking an interest in your subject should be a low bar to clear. Even so, look at Aaron Sorkin, the director of the star-studded but plastic biopic “Being the Ricardos.” A few months ago, speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, he let his unfiltered thoughts on “I Love Lucy” slip: “It’s not a show that if we took a fresh look at today, we’d think was funny.”
Apart from her genuine admiration for Ball and Arnaz, Poehler has another advantage over Sorkin: She has the stars themselves. Combining home movies and audiotapes recorded by Ball and Dezi, provided by the couple’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz, the director tracks the entertainers’ rise from B-movie stars to cultural icons. Occasionally trading in hero worship, Poehler’s “Lucy and Desi,” a dizzying, agile tribute to Ball and Arnaz and the landmark show they created, isn’t dampened by its genuine heartwarming spirit either.
Plenty of these celebrity exposés rely on never-before-heard audiotapes (“Kubrick by Kubrick,” the Billie Holiday film “Billie,” to name a few). The effectiveness of the trove depends on the uniqueness of the information the audio provides and how the director shapes it within the picture’s framework. “Lucy and Desi” is a kind of comfort food, rarely breaking any new investigative ground. The audiotapes offer no unknown tidbits about either spouse. But Poehler does strong work integrating the couple’s voices into their own narrative arcs.
Rather than leaning on surprises, Poehler uses the inherent power that arrives when people tell their own stories to propel the action. The director covers Ball and Arnaz’s meeting on the set of George Abbott’s 1940 musical “Too Many Girls,” their disparate backgrounds, and the ways their fated love grew overnight. She also surveys their respective influence as stars: Arnaz demystified the stereotypes surrounding Cubans for American audiences; Ball demonstrated the ways women could be funny and could be showrunners, and the tools needed to survive as both.
Poehler has a strong grasp on the couple’s creation of “I Love Lucy.” How Arnaz became the perfect producer, revolutionizing television production by deciding to capture the series on film and hiring a strong team of writers, producers, and crew to support the couple. Or Ball’s range as an actress and comedic performer: A section in which Ball explains the importance of an actor knowing their body and observing the world exemplifies her artistic prowess more than any biopic could. Considering the many hats worn by Poehler in her career — director, producer, writer, and comedian — these elegantly sketched observations are a matter of the material perfectly matching the filmmaker. She understands Ball and Arnaz on a visceral level. And it shows.
The director also summons a potent host of talking heads — Bette Milder, Carol Burnett, Eduardo Mechado — to contextualize Ball and Arnaz’s importance as performers and moguls, and the complementary creative roles they shared. She uses old interviews with “I Love Lucy” producer Jess Oppenheimer and his son Gregg to further recount the communist accusation brought against Ball by the House Un-American Activities Committee, and the actress’ groundbreaking pregnancy storyline on the show. Lucie, the pair’s daughter, fills the biggest emotional holes by taking viewers into the couple’s household: A mix of home movies from the family’s ill-fated European vacation, showing Ball as miserable as the day is long, visibly angry, along with Ball and Lucie’s own words, acutely explain the disillusionment of the couple’s marriage, even as their production company Desilu broke records.
As is often the case with these documentaries, “Lucy and Desi” veers into hagiographic territory, specifically the companionship of the couple. Poehler makes mention of Arnaz’s multiple infidelities but remains light on details. A few talking heads note how fans conveniently overlook Ball’s second husband Garry Morton to further mythologize the power couple’s television partnership. But the documentary essentially commits the same sin by quickly skipping past Morton. Poehler also makes light mention of Ball and Arnaz’s son Desi Arnaz Jr, whose voice only briefly appears at the film’s outset to discuss the pregnancy arc on “I Love Lucy.” Still, the couple’s daughter, the emotional fulcrum and real star of “Lucy and Desi,” provides enough memories for the two of them.
The final ten minutes, a stirring, profound crescendo, recalls Ball’s final visit with Arnaz, when the latter was dying of cancer, their final phone conversation, and Ball’s Kennedy Center Honors ceremony following his death. Editor Robert A. Martinez builds a poignant montage of greatest hits from “I Love Lucy.” And Lucie’s recollections of those final months, the real, undying affection the pair still showed toward each other, even at the end, is enough to make anyone wipe away a tear.
Poehler spends much of “Lucy and Desi” giving the audience exactly what they want, sometimes to a fault. It’s not flashy. It’s not often revelatory for any super fans, or even anyone who watched “Being the Ricardos” (though marking the factual differences between the two projects provides an intermittently complementary function). “Lucy and Desi,” however, is still meaty as a standalone work, and an essential, authentic salute to these trailblazers.
“Lucy and Desi” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It will be available to stream on Amazon Prime starting Friday, March 4.
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