“The sheer depth taken in exploring who these two legendary people were brings new insight and greater understanding to the foundations of their barrier-breaking legacy.”
by Ken Bakely
A long time ago, I Love Lucy – and perhaps, by extension, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz as we think of them as public figures – ceased to be an element of American culture in a distinct way, in the sense that you might notice a piece of furniture in a room, and became part of the wallpaper. The show is so constant, so there, that we’re now multiple generations deep into a time when its mere existence has been completely taken for granted. With this in mind, Amy Poehler’s Lucy and Desi is not content to simply be a documentary about Arnaz and Ball’s success – which we are all well aware of – but wants, instead, to use its vast array of footage and insightful interviews to form a more comprehensive thesis on how they built what they did, and what it reflected about them as artists and people. Profiling them both separately and together, Poehler carefully cuts between these two disparate life stories, with the fact and skill to avoid the trappings of a generic biographical documentary, where talking heads and archival clips alternate ad nauseum. She’s crafted a thoughtful and well-researched film which focuses on the human beings at the core and the work they did; a personal and professional story where the two elements can never be separated.
Emphasizing the intensity of that connection – a close-up, hard focus on the minutiae of how this all came to be – is by far the film’s forte, and where it looks to make its mark. I Love Lucy set decades’ worth of templates for how American television could be made on a technical level, and what it could communicate on a creative level. Arnaz and Ball were flying blind, with nothing but intuition and dedication to guide their choices in front of the camera. We know this going in, and the film does itself few favors when it reverts to such sky-level recitations of the show’s cultural legend, but Poehler weaves in important observations that challenge parts of that narrative: despite what we’re often told, Lucille Ball’s extraordinary physical comedy wasn’t “effortless,” says one interviewee. She tirelessly constructed each choice on a forensic scale, well aware that what she was doing was hard, and the more “effortless” it looked, the harder it was to achieve. She had to fight, tooth and nail, for everything she had – to parlay a career as an actor in B-film dramas to a comedy career in the first place, to have Desi Arnaz play her husband on the show, to have her pregnancy written into the show, to continue acting while running the production company she and Arnaz created. There was never a moment of guarantee for her – her family’s traumas, we learn, left them running from their past, looking for something permanent. And if Arnaz’s comfortable childhood in the Cuban aristocracy seemed like it would provide a differing perspective, his family’s expulsion from the country after the 1933 coup would prove otherwise. Neither rested without effort. Neither could.
And when they were their busiest, making over thirty episodes of I Love Lucy a season while seeking to remain active parents for their children, they were perhaps in their professional element but under the greatest personal strain; their marriage ended not long after the show, and in fact, both of their second marriages would last longer than their twenty-year union with each other. But, as daughter Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill observes, they only became kinder to each other in the years to follow, right up until Arnaz’s death in 1986. Through intimate personal recollection from family and candid archival audio from the subjects themselves, Lucy and Desi peels back the complicated layers of this relationship on all the levels it existed on, in triumph and shortcoming alike. I was unmoved by last year’s Being the Ricardos because, through all of it, there was never a feeling that the movie had any more than passing interest in its subject matter, or that it was using its real-life setting and characters as anything more than just a sounding board for its own ends. In contrast, Poehler clearly comes to this material with a deep familiarity and – most importantly – a real want to learn more and construct a film rich in details and context alike. Though the outer borders of this story are so familiar it’s perhaps inevitable that there could be some retreading, the sheer depth taken in exploring who these two legendary people were brings new insight and greater understanding to the foundations of their barrier-breaking legacy.