Lucy and Desi: A Love Story of Two TV Pioneers
Amazon Studios, with its new documentary Lucy and Desi, has done something practically unprecedented: Just over two months after releasing a highly divisive fictional movie, the same studio/distributor has released a documentary about the same subject, one that takes much greater care about the truth than the previous film did.
Lucy and Desi, directed by another sitcom star, Amy Poehler, tells the story of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz beginning to end, with the full cooperation of their estates and access to every relevant archival clip.
It’s a fairly straightforward telling of their story, with plentiful footage from I Love Lucy episodes and archival interviews with Lucy and Desi themselves, as well as their daughter, Lucie, and son Desi Jr. Some impressive interviewees, including Bette Midler, Carol Burnett (interviewed prior to her death), Norman Lear, and Charo.
The film doesn’t break much new ground, break appreciably with conventional wisdom, or tell any stories that won’t be known to die-hard fans of sitcom history and of that particular couple.
Lucy and Desi arrives on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s Being the Ricardos, which cast Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem in the main roles while taking an approach to the historical record in which accuracy and chronology were treated as mere suggestions.
Sorkin’s film wasn’t a complete failure; it earned three Oscar nominations, all for acting, and audiences liked it more than critics did. But to say the documentary is more historically faithful than the Sorkin version is a huge understatement. It also shows just how little Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem looked like Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, and how neither was the right age or physicality for the roles.
The documentary features plenty of I Love Lucy clips, including many of the more famous ones. It goes into such background stuff as Arnaz’s early life in Cuba, the accusations that Ball was a communist, and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.
We’re even treated to some explanation of their post-I Love Lucy projects and even the later parts of their lives. Not much time is spent on the communism part, although we’re reminded of that horrible moment in the Sorkin film that for some reason presented J. Edgar Hoover as the hero and vindicator of the story.
Lucy and Desi is Amy Poehler’s third film as director, although it’s her first documentary. The first two were comedies Wine Country and Moxie, both for Netflix, with the latter — a modern-day recreation of the Riot Grrrl mythos of the early 1990s — much more successful than the former.
With Lucy and Desi, she pays mostly successful tribute to two legends of the sitcom tradition that Poehler herself was part of for so long on Parks and Recreation. True, it doesn’t do much of anything to redefine the documentary form or our understanding of the subject matter. But it’s still a well-assembled treatment that, unlike Sorkin’s film, gets at the truth of the matter.
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: In an earlier version of this review I mistakenly referred to Carol Burnett as deceased, when she is in fact alive and well. My humblest apologies to Carol and her fans.)Watch Lucy and Desi