Lucy And Desi Review: Amy Poehler Crafts A Loving Tribute To The Trailblazing TV Couple [Sundance 2022]

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz have gone down in history as one of the most iconic Hollywood couples of all time, thanks to their beloved, groundbreaking sitcom "I Love Lucy." Though their story has been told plenty of times before, most recently in Aaron Sorkin's "Being the Ricardos" on Amazon Prime Video, the new documentary "Lucy and Desi" starts at the very beginning, before they ever met each other, and follows their blossoming romance and skyrocketing careers through highs and lows. With an impressive collection of candid archival home videos and audios recordings, this is one of the most complete chronicles of Lucy and Desi that fans have ever seen, and the documentary is as much a tribute as it is a profile on two of Hollywood's most revered stars. 

From the Beginning

Beginning with each of their childhoods and moving right on through their earliest brushes with show business, the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz is meticulously told through a massive array of TV clips, home videos, vintage photos, press clippings, and of course, those audio tapes from the opening of the film. It's kind of amazing just how much of their life ended up on film or audio, but that's what happens when you become two of the most famous people on television with a show that had roughly 11 million families tuning in every week at a time when there were only about 15 million TV sets in the country.

Amy Poehler relies heavily on this intimate collection of media, provided with the full support of both the Arnaz and Luckinbell families, and honestly, it's the most fascinating way to tell their story. It adds the kind of intimacy and personal touch that fans hope to see from a documentary like this.

"Lucy and Desi" also makes sparing use of talking heads, only opting to bring in a couple of key pop culture figures such as the incomparable Carol Burnett and Bette Midler, both of whom have lovely anecdotes to share about their own encounters with Lucille Ball. Otherwise, we economically hear from Gregg Oppenheimer, son of "I Love Lucy" creator-producer-head writer Jess Oppenheimer; Journey Gunderson, the executive director of the National Comedy Center in Lucy's hometown of Jamestown, New York; Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado; Laura LaPlaca, a media historian; and Spanish-American entertainer Charo, which is kind of an amusing cherry on this charming sundae.

While some of Lucy and Desi's time in the spotlight will be familiar to longtime admirers, there's also plenty to learn. Personally, I was unaware that Lucy and Desi spent eight and a half of their first nine years of marriage mostly being apart, because Desi was in the army for three and a half years, and then toured with his band for five years. I had no idea that Lucy found out she was pregnant from an accurate report by gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who had a spy in the medical labs for just such an occasion. These are just some of the surprising details that came out of this documentary.

But the documentary isn't just about the love between Lucy and Desi; it's also about the legacy they created in entertainment. First of all, "I Love Lucy" was a pioneer in TV production by becoming the first to use multiple cameras along with a live studio audience. Not only that, it was also one of the first TV shows to be shot on 35mm. In the wake of the groundbreaking success of "I Love Lucy," the couple's DesiLu Productions would go on to produce the shows like "The Untouchables," "Star Trek," "Mission: Impossible," and "Mannix." Their studio space also became the production home of "The Jack Benny Program," "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Dick Van Dyke Show," "My Three Sons," "I Spy," "Hogan's Heroes," and many more. Lucy and Desi didn't just create one of the highest rated, most influential shows on television — they changed television forever. 

I Love Lucy Was Never Just a Title

"Lucy and Desi" isn't exactly a warts-and-all exposé that digs into the more unsavory side of being a couple in the spotlight in 1950s Hollywood. That's immediately clear when the film begins with voiceover from Lucy and Desi's adult daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, revealing a small case of twenty-some audio tapes featuring candid, personal recordings of Lucy and Desi talking about anything and everything. But if you came here to learn about the worst of Lucy and Desi, you're going to be sorely disappointed. Not even Desi's reported alcoholism and philandering gets a mention in the doc, and plenty unsavory details that have come to light are nowhere to be found.

But honestly, who wants a documentary that digs into the seedier details of a marriage that was already plastered all over tabloids for the public to gobble up? As Luckinbell says, "Underneath all of this painful stuff and disappointment, at the core, it's all about unconditional love." "Lucy and Desi" tells the story of two aspiring entertainers who found love on the way to stardom, and it's that love that made them infinitely more famous than they ever would have been without each other. That's the real story.

During the 9th Annual Kennedy Center Honors in Washington DC, where Lucille Ball was being honored back in 1986, "The Untouchables" TV show star Robert Stack read something written by the late Desi Arnaz: "'I Love Lucy' was never just a title." 

I think that about sums up the genuine love there was between Lucy and Desi, long after their divorce, up to Desi's passing just five days before Lucy was honored in the nation's capitol, and even beyond, as Lucy lived out the rest of her days until she passed away just a few years later in 1989. "Lucy and Desi" may not dig into all the nooks and crannies of the tumultuous side of the couple's lives and careers, but it's still a damn good documentary.

"Lucy and Desi" premieres March 4, 2022, on Amazon Prime Video.

/Film Rating: 8 out of 10