When it comes to beloved TV couples, no one can really hold a candle to Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz. They’re the ones who started it all. Lucille Ball was the titular star of I Love Lucy, one of the most iconic television shows of the 1950s, and a supremely gifted comedian. But the show needed both of their creative talents to work, and their relationship was not just an (often tumultuous) marriage but one of the most successful production partnerships of the era. Amy Poehler’s documentary shows a reverence for their contributions to television history while still acknowledging their individual flaws. Balancing their personal and professional lives, Lucy and Desi is a love letter to the Hollywood duo that would revolutionize an entire entertainment medium and is by far the most engaging cinematic depiction of the famous pair we’ve seen.
This documentary takes an overarching approach to the lives and careers of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, using archival photos, video, and audio interviews to allow them to tell their own stories as much as possible. We hear Ball describe in her own words her experiences growing up in poverty, her courtship with Desi, the triumphs and disappointments of a fledgling actress in a Hollywood that didn’t quite know what to do with her. Director Amy Poehler seems to have a reverence for both Lucy and Desi (especially Lucy, who, as a female comedian, would pave the way for generations of women in comedy). Unlike Aaron Sorkin’s narrative film about the famous Hollywood couple that came out just a few short months before this documentary, there’s a sense here that Poehler truly appreciates the innovative humor featured in I Love Lucy that Lucille Ball developed so masterfully.
Lucy and Desi also manages to explore the famously fractious relationship between the two with a thoughtful and sympathetic eye. Whatever their married life was, it’s clear that they had a deep love and respect for one another, even if being together ultimately wasn’t the best thing for either of them. This is bolstered by the significant participation of their daughter, Lucie, who frequently appears throughout the film to add context to their relationship from their perspective. Still, although there’s a certain amount of adoration that Poehler brings to the production, Lucy and Desi is not afraid of exploring the less flattering elements of both individuals. We see how frequently they alienated each other, how their creative styles would clash, and that when stress would take over their lives, they wouldn’t be able to provide one another with the type of support they needed.
It treats them as humans rather than comedy gods and doesn’t hold back from thoughtful criticism. Although Poehler is clearly drawn to Lucille Ball as a figure of tremendous inspiration in her own career, Desi Arnaz is nevertheless treated equally respectfully throughout the film. We are given insight into his traumatic upbringing amid the Cuban revolution, and Poehler acknowledges his unique talents and contributions to their partnership. Lucy is often treated as the undisputed star of I Love Lucy, the one who was breaking barriers and innovating television. Still, Poehler makes sure that he gets the credit he deserves. Not only is he an incredibly generous scene partner, but his television appearance, especially married to a white woman, was just as groundbreaking as Ball’s style of comedy. In many ways, his ability to run the studio behind the scenes allowed Lucy to dedicate herself to her performance. Their partnership is celebrated in Poehler’s capable hands, even if their romance was ultimately doomed to failure.
With an impressive collection of archival footage, Lucy and Desi allows us to delve beneath the surface of the television show that defined the fledgling medium into what we know it as today. It empathetically explores both the personal and professional lives of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, offering new insight into the comedy legends in a way that feels fresh yet still comfortingly familiar. Director Amy Poehler’s love for her subjects bleeds through all aspects of the production, making it impossible not to feel a certain amount of affection for them as well and creating an entirely satisfying viewing experience.