When discussing Being the Ricardos with The Hollywood Reporter last year, writer/director Aaron Sorkin said of I Love Lucy: “It’s not a show that if we took a fresh look at today, we’d think was funny, I don’t think.” Amy Poehler’s new documentary Lucy & Desi, however, takes a different approach to one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, as she explores the troubled yet loving marriage between Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, their groundbreaking work together, and their difficult pasts which they both were able to transcend to become television legends.
At the beginning of Lucy and Desi, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, the daughter of the two title characters, discusses a series of tapes recorded by her parents, saying, “underneath all of this painful stuff and disappointment, at the core, it’s all about unconditional love.” Not only does is that true of the story that Poehler is capturing, but it also shows in Poehler’s very clear love for these two icons of television and comedy. Through Lucy and Desi, Poehler isn’t exactly breaking new ground in terms of documentary, but the fascinating story of this couple more than makes up for what is a fairly standard, by-the-numbers doc.
Poehler tells a mostly chronological history of both Ball and Arnaz, exploring Lucille’s rising up the ranks in entertainment, her scientific approach to humor, and her growth from an RKO player in dramatic work, to a focused and strong comedian. Similarly, Poehler looks at Arnaz’s past, having escaped to America when the Cuban Revolution began, becoming a music star under the training of Xavier Cugat, and his attempts to please a mother who longed to return to Cuba.
By focusing on these two as individuals, Poehler shows just how far these two had to come before creating TV history. While many of the details that Poehler points out here are well-known about the importance of I Love Lucy and this pair have been well-documented, by looking at their past separate from each other, we see just how far they’ve come, how much they excelled as a team, and just how remarkable their advancements of television as an art form are, to a point that these details all feel new again.
But at its core, Lucy and Desi is a love story, not just between two people, but between two people and their dedication to the work. In their attention to detail and forward-thinking, Poehler is also showing two people who changed the face of entertainment completely, the incredible amount of effort and commitment that went into creating a revolutionary project, and the eventual creation of Desilu Studios, which helped form the next few decades of television. Lucy and Desi shows that these two weren’t just brilliant at their work, but that it took perseverance and constant refining to make their series seem effortless.
While Poehler is completely absent from the film, it’s obvious why she would have such a passion for this story. Poehler has also excelled in television, in shows like Saturday Night Live to Parks and Recreation, and she knows that being hilarious can also be extremely hard work. Poehler might seem like a surprise choice to direct this story, yet it’s Poehler’s compassion for what this duo was trying to create, since Poehler herself knows where they are coming from, that makes her the ideal director for this documentary.
Lucy and Desi isn’t breaking the mold in terms of biographical documentaries, but when put together in this package, the story of Ball and Arnaz has an impressive weight beyond just a collection of compelling anecdotes. Poehler presents two full lives dedicated to their craft, a dedication that maybe destroyed their marriage, but created a body of work that still is incredible to this day.
Lucy and Desi premiered at Sundance and will debut on Prime Video on March 4.