Sundance 2022: Lucy and Desi is a worthy tribute to screen icons

Courtesy of Sundance Institute

For decades the I Love Lucy show has been soothing an increasingly hostile world with its brand of slapstick, witty zingers, and physical comedy. Once you hear that iconic theme song you immediately stop what you're doing and settle in for a half-hour of genius situational comedy starring Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball.

Their characters were meta even before that term was a buzzword because they were both married in real-life and the audience subscribed to the idea that they were getting a glimpse into their off-screen lives. What they didn't know is that their assumptions were only partly true.

Arnaz and Ball weren't as foolish as they appeared on television, but they were just as much in love.

Amy Poehler's new documentary Lucy and Desi, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, explores this archetypal couple both on and off-screen, focusing more on the latter than the former. It is a glowing tribute and deserves to be seen by everyone who likes television history, show business, or a classic love story.

The documentary is a patchwork of Lucy and Desi's personal tape recordings, home movies, old interviews, and talks with family, celebrities, and entertainment historians. It's successful in breaking the fourth wall and letting us see beyond the soundstage and what it took to make the world's most famous television show.

In the beginning, Lucy wanted to be a serious actress. Her roles were in B-movies, doing comedy just wasn't in her plans. That all changed when she starred in a film called Too Many Girls. It was on the set of that movie when she met Desi; they both fell in love.

SUNDANCE 2022 - "Lucy & Desi" with Amy Poehler

One of the great things Poehler does is provide her audience with as many archival mediums as she can find at each point in the story. At one moment during the movie, Lucy and Desi have decided to get a divorce after a painful trip to Paris. There's color film footage of Ball looking disheveled and depleted as she walks toward the camera. You can see in her eyes and mannerisms this was the end.

But before everything went south, the power couple built an entertainment empire. With Desi's ability to produce and Lucy's knack for comedy, the duo was able to create the greatest sitcom ever known. Upon that, they started the Desilu Studios and produced megahit shows such as Star Trek and Mission Impossible.

Through it all, they managed to have two children and sustain an amicable relationship even though things got rocky near the end. Desi admits in the film that he has no self-control, he simply lacks it. He says he wishes he had some because that would make his life easier, but alas it is his Achille's heel.

For those who question the veracity of Nicole Kidman's portrayal of Lucy in Amazon Primes pseudo-bio "Being the Ricardos" Poehler's film makes clear that Lucy wasn't the absent-minded housewife she played on television. Away from the set, the redhead was "hard-edged." This is confirmed by both her daughter and others involved with Desilu.

Being "difficult" is what they labeled women back then who were trying to infiltrate the tight barricades of a hyper-masculine Hollywood. Women couldn't become CEOs, women couldn't have artistic merit behind the screen. Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford touches on this in a famous Pepsi-Cola boardroom scene from her film Mommie Dearest.

Unlike Crawford, Ball is portrayed here as a boss with the tenacity, but not the skill set to run a studio. Carol Burnett jokes in the film that once Lucy became the first woman to run the world's biggest independent film studio, "that's when they added an 's" to her [last] name."

In the end, Lucy and Desi is an arc about love, art, and loss. These two people were everything you saw on television, and nothing like what you saw on television. They had a symbiotic relationship that thrived in the ecosystem of Tinseltown. Their story isn't as tragic as you think. And thankfully, it still lives on.

Thanks to Poehler and her adoration for these two trailblazers, it makes clear everything you see is not always in black and white.

If you want to watch this exquisite documentary you won't have to wait long, Lucy and Desi will premiere on Prime Video on March 4, 2022.

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