Sundance Review: Director Amy Poehler Gets to the Heart of Two Entertainment Pioneers with Lucy and Desi

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The post Sundance Review: Director Amy Poehler Gets to the Heart of Two Entertainment Pioneers with Lucy and Desi appeared first on Consequence.

This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

The PitchI Love Lucy is so inextricably tied to pop culture that many of its trademarks are still recognizable today, over seventy years since the show first aired. The central duo, brought to life by Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, has been an object of fascination for almost as long — look at Aaron Sorkin‘s current project, Being the Ricardos, which has the edge in flashiness thanks to the star power of Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Director Amy Poehler‘s thoughtful documentary on the subject has one extremely important thing Sorkin’s series lacks, though — access to the real thing.

Thanks to a treasure trove of audio tapes and home movies shared by the daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lucie Arnaz, Lucy and Desi is a window into two staples of entertainment history who were both wildly ahead of their time. While the film doesn’t offer any shocking, unknown revelations about the couple, it proves that Lucy and Desi’s story isn’t one that needs to be sensationalized. They were sensational enough on their own.

Lucy, We’re Home: It’s easy to see why Amy Poehler, as a deft actress, comedian, and producer herself, would be drawn to Lucille Ball’s story. Footage reveals Ball to be hard-edged and self-deprecating — she insists that she wasn’t very pretty, naturally funny, particularly smart, or strong when it comes to singing and dancing. Such claims stand in stark contrast to photos and some excellent archival footage that paints a very different picture.

Poehler understands the creative struggle, though, and this understanding of the need to constantly push and fine-tune a skillset in the arts makes for one of the most compelling narrative threads in the documentary. The plethora of footage takes away the need for too many talking heads, keeping the focus on the central duo. Instead, when we do cut to people like Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, or (most often) Lucie Arnaz, it’s for welcomed anecdotes. The 103-minute runtime fails to feel overstuffed.

Desilu Productions, Incorporated: Many details of Lucille and Desi’s love story are well-known at this point — two young entertainers meet, fall in love, get married, and go on to have a very successful professional partnership on the set of their show, I Love Lucy. What people might not know is that the two had been married for nearly a decade before I Love Lucy was pitched and brought to life, and the show was a means for the two to see each other more often.

Lucy and Desi excels when it shows how the two — a woman, and a Cuban immigrant — were able to transcend the roles deemed societally appropriate at the time. The duo built the success of I Love Lucy into one of the largest production companies in Hollywood, eventually even buying a studio that once fired him. Desilu Productions, as it was known, was responsible for the original Star TrekThe Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, and The Dick Van Dyke show. All the while, Lucy was often referred to as “the boss’s boss.”

Lucy and Ricky, Lucille and Desi: Interestingly (but understandably, considering the source of the footage and recordings), the documentary is relatively gentle on Desi Arnaz, especially as it relates to the couple’s divorce. There are mentions of his infidelities, but they’re quickly grouped into details of health issues and other pressures of existing in the entertainment world. Lucille and Desi’s initial work partnership, orchestrated as a way to allow them to spend more time together, eventually becomes the very source of their romantic demise.

One of the only major stumbles in the documentary is in the treatment of the happy marriages sustained by both Ball and Arnaz following their divorce — after two decades with Arnaz, Lucille Ball went on to spend 27 years with comedian Gary Morton until her death in 1989. There are mentions of the fact that the public tended to ignore Morton, preferring to live in the illusion of Lucille Ball’s professional partnership with Desi Arnaz as they continued working together for many more years. The documentary commits nearly the same sin, though, by skirting past details on her relationship with Morton, or Arnaz’s second marriage to Edith Hirsch.

We Still Love Lucy: Through footage of a partnership both euphoric and miserable, details of living through the Hollywood blacklist, and insights from Ball and Arnaz’s two children, things arrive at a genuinely stirring conclusion. Towards the end of his battle with cancer, Arnaz was visited one last time by Ball. Footage of their daughter recounting the story of their final reunion is intercut with footage of Ball being honored at the Kennedy Center, where a letter from Arnaz is read. Poehler doesn’t hold any punches by choosing to also sprinkle in some of the most iconic moments of the two together on I Love Lucy. 

The Verdict: By the time the credits roll, it’s crystal clear that these two people had a special affection for one another, even long after their romantic partnership had ended. Lucy and Desi feels like a critical watch for anyone working to carve out their own corner of the incredibly difficult entertainment industry, particularly young women. In Poehler’s hands, it’s a worthy testament to two pioneers whose stories began with a date and a dance.

Where to Watch: Amazon has secured distribution rights. No release date has been set.

Sundance Review: Director Amy Poehler Gets to the Heart of Two Entertainment Pioneers with Lucy and Desi
Mary Siroky

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