In Lucy and Desi, Amy Poehler Revisits the Love Affair That Built Television
A still from <i>Lucy and Desi</i> by Amy Poehler, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute. All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

“The only reason I Love Lucy exists is because they wanted to be together,” Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, daughter of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, says of her parents in the excellent new Amy Poehler documentary, Lucy and Desi. “So they could have a family and make the marriage work.”

The film, which just debuted at Sundance, lays out sympathetically and convincingly how the love between the pair, who met in an RKO Pictures commissary in 1940, paralleled and inspired the rise of television. She had been a showgirl, model, and eventually actress, not especially known for her comic chops. His family had fled Communism in Cuba, losing everything in the process, and he had become a bandleader and actor.

You might expect a doc directed by a modern-day comedy star, in her directorial debut, to make heavy-handed parallels between then and now, with Poehler popping up from time to time to crack jokes and make sure the audiences of today are keeping engaged.

But no: The Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation star trusts her story, and the incredible access she gains, including a trove of recordings Ball and Arnaz made for their children. Poehler deftly assembles decades of fascinating information and telling details, and consistently delights and surprises us, without once finding it necessary to appear onscreen. (People far less charming and funny than Amy Poehler have misguidedly made themselves the stars of their documentaries about other people.) Rather than asserting that I Love Lucy is still good, she lets long clips play so we can see for ourselves. Lucy and Desi is a wonderful directorial debut.

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Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are of course in the news lately because of Aaron Sorkin’s dramatized Being the Ricardos, now on Amazon Prime. I wish Lucy and Desi, which will also soon stream on Prime, had come out first, so people could have heard their remarkable story without the distracting debates about accents as casting that have accompanied Ricardos. As a person who has never been at all interested in I Love Lucy — it seemed like something for my grandparents — I found myself very moved, entertained, and in awe of what Ball and Arnaz built from nothing.

As the film explains, the couple spent most of the first decade of their marriage apart because of Arnaz’s time in the Army and on the road with his band. When Lucille Ball got a shot at starring in her own television show in 1951, she agreed to do it on the condition that her real-life husband play her husband on the show.

The show closely paralleled major events in their own lives. Lucie Arnaz was born six months before it debuted. Her brother, Desi Arnaz Jr.,  was born in 1953 after Lucille Ball’s pregnancy became a part of I Love Lucy‘s second season. (CBS wouldn’t let her say the word “pregnant,” she says, but she could say she felt like “an expectant swan.”) The show ended in 1957, and was replaced by occasional one-hour specials.

But the stress of the show — and all the success that accompanied it — drove them apart. The specials ended in 1960, and so did their marriage.

During this 10-year stretch they built not only their family, but television itself. In that time, Arnaz revolutionized the sitcom format, leading to the three-camera shooting technique still in wide practice today. They recorded on film, quickly and efficiently, so that I Love Lucy could be played across time zones without losing quality. The use of reruns, necessitated by Desi Jr.’s birth, created a revenue model that made many people very rich. The couple bought the former RKO studios to create Desilu Productions, which in the 1960s birthed  Star Trek, Mission: Impossible, and The Untouchables, among other shows.

When Arnaz’s drinking and depression kept him from applying his remarkable skill as a producer, Ball stepped in. She says in the doc that it was in those years that she added an “s” to the end of her last name.

The documentary could have run out of steam or turned bittersweet as we see Lucy and Desi go on to second marriages that will long outlast the one they shared. But then Poehler’s astonishing access pays off again, as Luckinbill shares beautiful memories of her father’s last days, and her parents’ final goodbye.

Main image: A still from Lucy and Desi by Amy Poehler, an official selection of the Premieres section at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.