LUCY AND DESI (Sundance FF 2022) – Review by Leslie Combemale

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Love or hate Being the Ricardos, the movie was born out of a fascination for one of the most powerful couples in pop culture history. Preceding it were a number of other representations of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in both narrative and documentary form, including those by Being the Ricardos’ executive producer by Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who created The Desilu Story and the Emmy-Award winning I Love Lucy 50th Anniversary Special. Now with its premiere at Sundance 2022, director Amy Poehler adds the film Lucy and Desi to the collection, which can arguably be called the definitive work on these sitcom trailblazers and first popular interracial couple in Hollywood. Fans of the gorgeous redheaded powerhouse called ‘The Queen of the Bs’, and the man who was both a brilliant producer and a magnetic performer who popularized the rhumba in the US, will learn lots of new information from the subjects themselves and love every minute of it.

It is Poehler’s first time helming a documentary, and the proof is in the product. The producers picked perfectly. It was a great choice of material for her. As a famous comedian, a mother, and the former part of a Hollywood power couple herself (she and Will Arnett have two sons together), she clearly has a curiosity and an understanding for the subjects, approaching the project with both respect and sensitivity. Never-before-heard recordings of both Lucy and Desi, interviews with loved ones and colleagues, and nostalgic photography and footage from their lives tell their stories both together and individually, from their very different childhoods, through their separate paths to success and finding each other, to their meteoric rise as America’s most popular tv couple, and becoming, together, tv’s most successful entrepreneurs, then separating but having a lifelong connection.

One of the central interviewees is Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, who speaks from her own experience and memories of her mom and dad. It was in one of the many boxes of her stored mementos that the filmmakers found tapes recorded during Lucy and Desi’s lifetime. Lost for decades, they allows for the film to be virtually narrated by the couple themselves. It also humanizes them as just people trying, as we all do, to find lasting love, and working to balance success and innovation with personal happiness.

The film is a great balance of Intimate insights about their hopes and fears and the laying out of the historic way they changed Hollywood and tv forever with Desilu, the studio they started together. Female comedians and performers like Carol Burnett and Bette Midler share how Lucy befriended them, helping to mentor them and supporting their careers. Burnett says of Lucy, “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of her.” Lucy also helped train actors coming up in the business with her Desilu Workshop.

Beyond being entertaining, there’s so much about these two people that audiences will learn through this film.
For one thing, Lucy and Desi clears up the misguided belief that Desi Arnaz was just riding Lucy’s coattails. He was a hard-working producer with a fearless and laser-sharp sense of innovation. He demanded that I Love Lucy be shot on film in front of a studio audience, which paved the way for many, many other shows to do the same. Poehler’s documentary doesn’t shy away from the bumpier aspects of the couple’s experience. For example, both the tapes and Luckinbill’s recollections chronicle in detail a particularly awful family vacation that signaled the end of Lucy and Desi’s marriage. There is a poignancy to the later years that Lucy and Desi shared that provides a lovely but unforced ending to the film.

This is a straight-ahead film that avoids using tricks or hybridized documentary styles, and in that way it isn’t bringing anything new to the world of film. It is, however, a loving portrait of a complicated couple that goes deep into how two people worked together, loved, fought, and found peace in a complex lifelong relationship, one that also celebrates two historic performers who left a lasting legacy behind.

4 out of 5 stars

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Leslie Combemale

Leslie Combemale writes as Cinema Siren on her own website, CinemaSiren.com, and is a frequent contributor to MPA's TheCredits.org, where she interviews filmmakers above and below the line, with a focus on women and diverse voices. She is the Senior Contributor at AWFJ.org. Leslie is in her 9th year as producer and moderator of the influential "Women Rocking Hollywood" panel at San Diego Comic-Con. She is a world-renowned expert on cinema art and her film art gallery, ArtInsights, located near DC, has celebrated cinema art and artists for 30 years.