A film review by Craig J. Koban April 7, 2022

LUCY AND DESI jjj

2022, Unrated, 102 mins.

A documentary directed by Amy Poehler  and written by Mark Monroe

 

 

ORIGINAL FILM

Amy Poehler's intoxicating Amazon Prime documentary LUCY AND DESI aims to do two things (and it does so resoundingly well): 

Firstly, it wishes to tell a touching love story about two of the most iconic figures in sitcom television history in Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.  Secondly, the doc chronicles what a truly pioneering couple they were when it came to pushing the boundaries of what the then new format could do on top of showing Ball as an absolutely fearless comedian that took her job seriously with a near surgical precision.  

Many will be wondering whether or not LUCY AND DESI is required viewing after the streaming giant just released their Oscar nominated drama BEING THE RICARDOS, but both manage to compliment each other rather nicely (granted, Poehler's doc is more ambitious in its scope and focus).  Aaron Sorkin's 2021 film - a fine accomplishment in its own right - narrowly honed in on a very stressful week in the making of one of the episodes of I LOVE LUCY, whereas LUCY AND DESI digs deeper behind this power couple's formation, their formative creative years together, and the collapse of their marriage due to the strains of putting on show. 

It's impossible to understate just how popular I LOVE LUCY was in the 1950s.  The most cherished episodes of the sitcom were watched by upwards of nearly 70 per cent of Americans of the day.  The very first issue of TV Guide featured an image of Ball and Arnaz's first baby, with the former's real-life pregnancy being written into the show (a taboo-breaking occurrence in the history of television).  One of the questions that I had going into LUCY AND DESI was what, if anything, could this doc tell me about these inordinately influential TV personalities that I didn't already know?  Thankfully, Poehler doesn't resign herself to an obligatory talking heads/archival approach (even though the film does contain both).  Revealed early in the doc, a series of cassette tapes provided by Ball and Arnaz's daughter (also an interview subject here) gives us intimate, never before heard conversations, daily musings, interviews, and so forth that provides a portal into the past and allows the couple to almost narrate this doc from the grave.  Of course, Poehler manages to get some modern interviews from a variety of participates (including other industry titans like Norman Lear and Carol Burnett), but the real holy grail material here is hearing Ball in particular speaking with remarkable frankness about various aspects of her life and career, both good times and bad.  The wealth of material here is pretty amazing and revelatory. 

The doc serves its purposes of giving us a sense of this couple's personal history together as well, explaining how the two met back in 1940 on an RKO musical called TOO MANY GIRLS (Ball began her career as a model in the 30s that later begat a career on Broadway that, in turn, segued into her becoming a contract player for RKO, mostly as a chorus girl working in B-pictures).  Arnaz, at the time, was already a well established and popular Cuban-American bandleader when he courted Ball, but shortly after they were married his career started to freefall, which led to him joining the army for three years (this was followed by going back on the road as a musician, to which Ball claims that her hubby was gone 99 per cent of their marriage).  As history has shown, their greatest creative coup for them came with conceiving a sitcom where they could play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves, and it's here where the doc rightfully cements this pair's rightful place as watershed figures that made something that was then extremely cutting edge.  Just consider, for starters, the notion of having a mixed race couple headlining a new sitcom in the 50s.  That alone was extraordinarily forward thinking and, in the era, extremely controversial (the network original wanted nothing to do with this concept, but Ball not only wanted to push the envelope of standards and practices, but also - on a practical level - wanted her husband home and working with her as opposed to doing the nightclub circuit on an endlessly loop). 

 

 

The doc also wisely points out that for as much unbridled ambition that Ball had as a comedic performer (and as a meticulous perfectionist), Arnaz deserves credit for insisting that their show to be shot on film to visually preserve it longer and for future generations.  Ball herself - via interview snippets and her musings on those aforementioned tapes) is monumentally modest about her own gifts as a comedian.  When you watch episodes of I LOVE LUCY her gifts as an on-screen funny lady seem both effortless and natural, but by her estimation what made her character and the laughs work was approaching them with an almost scientific level of scrutiny.  She's also remarkably hard on herself in terms of her beauty ("If you're not beautiful and you're not bright you can do anything").  What became so alluring about her portrayal of the most famous redhead in pop culture history is in just how plucky she was at making herself look bad on camera for a gag.  She describes it as an "enchanted sense of play":  Lucy on I LOVE LUCY felt like a real person despite the madcap and sometimes frankly bizarre things that happened to her.  That's what made her so unendingly loveable, and her command of physical comedy deserves worthy comparisons to the work of Keaton or Chaplin.   

LUCY AND DESI also focuses on the aftermath of the duo's iconic series, which lasted a modest five seasons and 179 episodes.  In a bold business move, they sold the rights for $5 million (an gargantuan for the 50s), which gave way to their show being "rerun" for as long as time would permit.  With their wealth and power, Ball and Arnaz set their crosshairs on bigger aspirations, like purchasing the studio that started Ball's career in RKO, which they affectionately renamed Desilu (something that's largely forgotten is that their newly christened studio went on to produce the original STAR TREK and MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE...and just imagine the entire pop culture landscape without Gene Roddenberry's creation in collaboration with Desilu).  The weight of industry pressures did get the better of Ball and Arnaz, which led to their fairy tale romance and marriage coming to an abrupt end with divorce in 1960.  Ball herself became the very first woman to run a TV studio with Desilu in 1962.

I think that the one area that Poehler's feel-good doc misses the mark is in covering Arnaz's well publicized drinking and womanizing, which, no doubt, was a prime catalyst for their depressing break-up (if anything, the doc oddly seems to emphasize that it was Ball's greater success as the face of I LOVE LUCY that made Arnaz envious).  In the aftermath of their divorce, Arnaz became obsessed with becoming a prominent producer on his own, which regrettably started him on a downward path (when all is said and done, he never attained the instantly recognizable status of his more beloved wife in the public eye).  Arnaz was tragically diagnosed with lung cancer in 1986 after a lifetime of smoking, but in one of LUCY AND DESI's most poignant reveals their daughter in Lucy Arnaz Luckinbill explains how her mother went to visit her father while he was on his death bed and - to numb his pains - they watched old reruns of I LOVE LUCY and joyously laughed all the way through them.  Ball and Arnaz didn't end up working as a compatible couple in life, but on TV they made something legendary that would live in our collective hearts and minds forever.   

The final segment of LUCY AND DESI is even more tender: We see an archival clip of Ball receiving her Kennedy Center Honor, but before accepting it she's greeted to star Robert Stack (who stared as Elliott Ness in the Desilu produced UNTOUCHABLES TV series) reading a letter penned by Arnaz (before his death) that he wanted his ex-wife to hear upon receiving her award (it's enough to make one weep with joy).  I appreciated the moments in LUCY AND DESI that honed in on these industry behemoths at their most unsure and vulnerable, which serves the purposes of demythologizing them (like, for instance, a moving acceptance speech given by Ball upon winning an Emmy in 1967, during which time she feels legitimately shocked that she even won).  LUCY AND DESI does what good docs should do: It offers up newfound insights into Ball and Arnaz's lives together and how through their relatively short relationship they managed to buck status quos and fundamentally alter the landscape of popular television forever.  Everybody seemed to love I LOVE LUCY when it aired (and it continues to be adored to this day), but all throughout their storied courtship, showbiz careers, radical trend setting influence, and later public and private clashes Lucy and Desi loved each other as collaborators and partners until the very end.

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