Some of us grew up watching Lucille Ball on television. I know I certainly did.
In the 1950s, I Love Lucy dominated the airwaves in the United States, running for six seasons (180 half-hour episodes). The show entered off-network syndication in 1967, and I have vivid memories of watching it during the daytime hours, as well as Here’s Lucy, which ran for six seasons (144 episodes) in prime time. By the time the latter show ended in 1974, I was in my teens and thought myself too old to be amused any longer by the antics of Lucy and Desi.
How wrong I was. Aaron Sorkin’s recent fictionalization of one week in the life, Being the Ricardos, made me curious about the truth behind the story. Thus, the arrival of the documentary Lucy and Desi comes at precisely the right time for me and anyone else who has an interest in a true power couple.
Directed by Amy Poehler and written by Mark Monroe, Lucy and Desi is a lively, well-constructed piece that places both Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz into the context of their times. We first learn about them as individual single people building very respectable careers in the entertainment business. They married and, some years later, they became transformational stars in the first age of television, while also starting their family. Everything looked rosy.
Desi’s ambition led to his creation of a successful company that produced many notable television shows, yet became a contributing factor to the breakup of their marriage. They both survived the end of their marriage, but were able to find lasting, loving relationships with new marriage mates. And they found each other again before they passed away, though it seems they never really stopped loving each other.
It’s a grand love story that grows bittersweet toward the end, which is a credit to the filmmakers. Mark Monroe has written many fine documentary scripts, and Lucy and Desi fits nicely into his resume. Amy Poehler is a wonderful comedy writer and has directed two previous feature films, so she knows how to shape and mold a movie.
I was struck particularly by her deft ability to weave a compelling story out of the standard materials for a biographical documentary such as this, namely, ‘talking head’ interviews and archival photos. Beyond that, the film is bolstered by excerpts from home movies, which flesh out individual moments, and behind-the-scenes footage from the show(s), talk show appearances, and the like.
Poehler also makes good use of on-camera interviews with Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear, and, especially, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who reflects on the life of her parents with perceptive insights gained from her own experiences. (Things change once you get some critical distance away from the pain of parental loss.) In addition, Gregg Openheimer and David Daniels, whose fathers were key creatives on I Love Lucy, contribute their perspectives, along with Lauren Laplaca and Journey Gunderson, experts on the historical period in which Lucy and Desi made their marks.
To be frank, before watching Lucy and Desi, I would have been content never to see another episode of the original show again. (In my adolescence, I began to think of it as far too juvenile and silly for the likes of teenage me.) Now I want to see it again, and binge-watch the whole thing.
(FYI: Hulu has most of seasons 1 through 6, but not every episode; Paramount Plus has seasons 2 through 6, but not every episode; Prime Video has a ‘Best of’ collection of episodes.)
The film will be available to stream Friday, March 4 on Prime Video. For more information, visit the official site.