Lucy and Desi shows the behind-the-scenes of America’s long-time favorite couple. Stars each in their own right, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz together created an empire that would change the face of television and shatter glass ceilings for people of color and women in Hollywood. Probably one of the hardest working couples in America, their journey towards success was never-ending and took a toll on the besotted couple.
Directed by Amy Poehler, Lucy and Desi uses interviews, archival footage, and audio from personal tapes to tell an unbiased story of this dynamic couple. Although this is not a fictionalized telling of the story, like 2021’s Being the Ricardos (also on Prime Video), it’s just as riveting. At the height of their popularity, these two were seen as the ideal. Lucy and Desi humanizes the couple, showing how their imperfections made them more relatable. It shows the couple beyond petty reputations and celebrates the multitude of layers they inhabited.
A collection of about 20 audiotapes were provided to Poehler by Lucy and Desi’s oldest daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill. The couple would record interviews and sometimes just daily thoughts on tape. After finding the tapes, Luckinbill says they helped her to give more grace to her parents, to understand a bit more of what was happening when she was a child.
Along with their daughter Luckinbill, there are many talking head interviews, from their son Desi Arnaz Jr. as well as some of Lucy’s proteges. Icons in their own right, you’ll see entertainers like Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, Norman Lear, and consummate treat Charo! Also on hand are members of the National Comedy Museum and the Lucy Desi Museum, both in Jamestown, New York — Lucy’s hometown. To add more insight into Desi’s perspective, they brought in Eduardo Machado to offer some new and much-needed context to the mysterious character Desi seemed to be.
For a couple always in the spotlight, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz both had hidden pockets where they kept their vulnerabilities. Lucy’s history is filled with gorgeous vintage photos, but her stories are peppered with alarming anecdotes that she acts almost nonplussed over. Under the words, in her voice, you can tell she cares deeply but seems to refuse to show it. It fits in with Luckinbill’s assessment that her mother could be “cold” and “hard.” Lucy had a rough upbringing, but she refused to let it get her down. She rose to fame primarily because of her indefatigable spirit and willingness to do nearly anything for laughs. However, it wasn’t always easy. She is now regarded as a one-of-a-kind genius and in many ways she was, but she was also just a human who worked hard to be the best she could be. Lucy grew up relatively lower-middle class and learned how to hustle until she was cast as a Goldwyn Girl and moved to California to film Roman Scandals.
Desi Arnaz had an equally traumatic childhood that would be full of stories swept under the rug if Desi could bring himself to tell them in the first place. An heir of the Bacardi Rum fortune, Desi grew up in very privileged circumstances. That was until the Cuban revolution of 1933, which forced him to seek refuge in America without any of the wealth and privilege of his former home.
The documentary follows Desi from his job as a canary cage cleaner to becoming executive of one of the largest film and TV studios in Hollywood. Poehler does a fantastic job of giving not just historical facts but also racial and socioeconomic context. The documentary doesn’t shy away from the impact Desi had on other Latino men of the day and his effect on those who had a problem initially with him having a white wife.
After Lucy and Desi meet and marry in a whirlwind, the film begins to volley between two different Desilu stories. The first is how the couple built the famous I Love Lucy and then formed the influential dynasty of Desilu studios. The second is about how in creating a dynasty, they neglected the foundation for their own family and marriage. Both flow around each other beautifully. Poehler’s choices for interviewees are specific, and they all take care to tell the truth while never casting blame on any one person. Lucy had her flaws, Desi had his, but what they created together couldn’t be denied.
As someone who grew up during the Nick at Night era, I found re-runs (an innovation created by Desi) of I Love Lucy to be ubiquitous. It wasn’t exactly my type of humor, but I remember the bonbons episode, the grape smashing one, and of course Vitameatavegamin. I’d heard shades here and there of the couple’s relationship outside of the show, but it was all very surface. Lucy and Desi gave me a new appreciation and understanding for the couple and especially of Lucy’s accomplishments while being a woman in comedy.
If there are any misses in Lucy and Desi, it’s mostly because there’s so much material to glean from. It’s hard to give everything the kind of attention it should have, and the documentary does a good job of deciding what to give space to. Sometimes the relevance can be a bit unclear. There’s a section regarding Lucy’s off-Broadway stint Wildcat. It may have served as an entrance for Carol Burnett, but we get a version of that later so it felt a bit extraneous though it was interesting to learn. Additionally, a lot of effort was put into Desi’s death, but Lucy’s was only mentioned in a title card at the end of the film. I would have liked to see a bit more content about that.
That said, when the documentary gets it right, it goes full throttle. The time sped by, and I was fascinated by their stories, especially learning the impact and reach of Desilu Studios and the positive and negative impact on the couple. Though they divorced in 1960 and each went on to find new spouses, it could almost be said this is when their true relationship began. The documentary makes a good case for that.
The film is filled with love and care and asks the tough questions in a way that makes the answers unafraid and unfettered. It should seem impossible to get these lives into a documentary that’s under two hours, and yet Lucy and Desi have gotten as close as anyone without sacrificing the quality and integrity of the story.
Lucy and Desi premiered during Sundance 2022 and will be released on Prime Video March 4th.
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Stacey Yvonne is an entertainment journalist who is often found in some corner of the internet pontificating about pop culture and its effect on women, Blackfolk and the LGBT+ community. You can see more of her work at https://syvonnecreative.com