Lucy and Desi review: Amy Poehler’s documentary is an antidote to the failures of Being the Ricardos

Dir: Amy Poehler. Starring: Lucille Ball, Desi Arnaz, Lucie Arnaz, Bette Midler, Carol Burnett, Norman Lear. 12A, 103 minutes.

I Love Lucy was never just a title,” wrote Desi Arnaz in his posthumous letter to ex-wife Lucille Ball. It was read out five days after his death, when Ball was fêted at the Kennedy Centre Honours. Cameras recorded Ball’s quiet, tear-stained reaction as she sat on a balcony, a medal draped around her shoulders, and watched the proceedings from above. The pioneering sitcom they made together was born out of love – an uncomplicated desire for husband and wife to work side by side and keep their family together. “You can’t have children on the telephone,” Ball would later joke.

What I Love Lucy became is a show that continues to shape our concept of television. The sitcom, which focused on the weekly antics of bandleader Ricky (Arnaz) and his fame-seeking wife Lucy (Ball), was the first to shoot on film with an audience present rather than broadcast live. And, since they had preserved copies of the episodes, it effectively led to the creation of the rerun. Through Ball and Arnaz’s production company, Desilu, the pair continued to push the boundaries of what was possible on television through series like The Untouchables and Star Trek.

It’s this fierce ingenuity and impassioned commitment that Aaron Sorkin’s now-Oscar-nominated biopic, Being the Ricardos, failed to fully appreciate. So consider Amy Poehler’s new documentary, Lucy and Desi, an antidote. Sorkin has openly admitted that he doesn’t find I Love Lucy particularly funny. Hagiography is never the ideal approach but Poehler, a comedian clearly influenced by Ball, can at least understand the intimacy between the couple’s life and work. They divorced in 1960, but still fostered a creative connection that survived their second, longer-lasting marriages.

The fates of all these individuals intertwine in surprising ways. Ball came from an unlucky family, and was eager to sustain herself from an early age. She worked relentlessly, honed her craft, and came to dominate the B-movie industry before abruptly pivoting to comedy. Arnaz, who came to the US from Cuba as a child, helped popularise the conga while on the nightclub circuit, before meeting Ball on the RKO studio lot.

The documentary includes the voices of the couple’s two children, Desi Arnaz Jr and Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, and it’s the latter whose involvement transforms what could otherwise have been easily dismissed as conventional biography. Luckinbill never comes across as particularly defensive about her parents’ legacy. She is, above all, a daughter trying to understand why her parents acted as they did and why, it seems, certain things were never spoken about in her home.

Lucy and Desi, in places, suffers from a lack of interrogation – particularly when it comes to Arnaz’s views on communism, his alcoholism and infidelity, and the House Un-American Activities Commission’s investigation into Ball’s political allegiances (as covered in Sorkin’s film). But Poehler, alongside producer and writer Mark Monroe, makes a clear, artistic choice here: this is a love story, not an exposé. The carefully edited clips of I Love Lucy, plus an extensive archive of home movies, do a beautiful job of uniting the Ricky and Lucy we see on screen and the Desi and Lucille who lived behind it.

The number and calibre of the talking heads here are impressive, and there’s something simple and beautiful about the way Carol Burnett and Bette Midler both tear up a little discussing how Ball, later on in her career, served as a mentor. “At the core, it’s all about unconditional love,” Luckinbill says at one point. It was true about Ball and Arnaz. And it was true, too, about what they brought to the world.