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Sundance 2022 Review: Lucy and Desi – “Packs a surprisingly emotional punch”

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.

When I was a kid, sick days home from school were spent watching I Love Lucy episodes that were re-run on one of our local television stations every weekday morning.  This may be led to more sick days than was necessary because I adored them so much.  My mother, who would often watch along side me, loved Lucille Ball, and her admiration for the star was clearly something I picked up on as a child.  The information I absorbed from her told me that Lucy was something special and so because my mom did, as you do when you’re young, I therefore loved her too.

As I got older, my love for her became my own, yet despite this lifelong adoration for the star, outside of iconic scenes of her smashing grapes with her feet or touting the benefits of Vitameatavegamin, I knew very little about her.  I didn’t have much faith in the fictionalized film released late last year, so was looking forward to this documentary, Lucy and Desi, directed by Amy Poehler.  This time, I was not disappointed.

Check out our Sundance Film Festival coverage

One of the benefits of Poehler’s film (her documentary directorial debut) is that it is largely heard through Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz‘s own voices.  The pair had a plethora of audiotapes that, when added to their considerable amount of television footage, archival video and even home video allows them to tell their own story.  Poehler also includes interviews with their children Lucie Arnaz and Desi Arnaz Jr. (whose birth was one of the most publicized in history) as well as Carol Burnett, Bette Midler and other collaborators to add external yet familiar perspective.

Poehler takes a relatively linear approach to Lucy and Desi.  Lucy was born in Jamestown, New York where a tragic accident financially ruined her family.  Desi’s story began in Cuba, where at the age of 14 his family was forced to flee during the Cuban Revolution.  Despite both of their beginnings, they worked their way to Hollywood, meeting on the set of Too Many Girls and marrying soon after.  To the pair, there was nothing more important than taking care of their families, which they always did, but close to the first decade of their married life was spent apart with Lucy working in film, and Desi serving in the army, as well as touring with his band.  They knew if they wanted a family of their own things would have to change.  And so I Love Lucy was born – a way for them to spend time together.

Little did they know that the comedy show they started would lead to so much success.  Nor did they know the influence they would have.  Seeing a white woman married to a Cuban-American man on television was unheard of back in the 1950s (so, as we learn, was using the word pregnant).  But Lucy fought for his inclusion and won; and America loved them.  It wouldn’t be the last battle the couple faced as they rose to become the most successful show on television.  And then started their production company DesiLu.  And then bought the film studio RKO where Lucy had her first contracts.  And then produced a deluge of shows you know and love.  At DesiLu, Arnaz was the president of it all (Lucy as vice president) and as he says in the film, he had only two choices, “Quit, or get bigger.”  Bigger was it.

Poehler never shies away from the facts of their story, that their success was eventually the couple’s downfall, and led to drinking problems for Arnaz. But, being in the business herself she has a unique perspective and obvious passion for sharing just how significant their contributions to television and comedy were.  To choose just even a small example, they were the first to actually use ‘reruns’ and the first to use film in front of a studio audience.  Poehler does an admirable job of weaving together all the components of her film.  She doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel, but instead gives us insight as to how Lucy and Desi did just that.

As we hear Ball recount how she approaches comedy, her need for rehearsal, her dedication to her craft we realize that even though it looked effortless it was anything but.  Both Arnaz and Ball worked themselves to the point of exhaustion and while in front of the cameras their relationship always had happy endings, their real-life relationship did not, instead culminating in divorce.  Despite all that, the two shared an unconditional love for one another that persisted until the end.  It’s a moving and tender realization that makes the conclusion of this documentary pack a surprisingly emotional punch.  As Arnaz recounts in a letter he wrote, “I Love Lucy was never just a title.”  How exceptionally true.

Lucy and Desi had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, and will be released on Amazon Prime March 4, 2022.

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