Review: Loving documentary of TV giants in ‘Lucy and Desi’
A boy sees a pretty girl at a party and delivers a pick-up line for the ages. “If you don’t have anything to do tonight, how would you like to learn how to do the rhumba?” he asks. The girl is charmed. “I don’t, and I′d love to,” she answers.
So began a love affair for the ages and eventually a crucial professional partnership at the dawn of television — the union of Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
The duo are having a moment. A new respectful Amazon Prime documentary “Lucy and Desi” comes out Friday on the heels of Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” with Javier Bardem and Nicole Kidman.
The relatively straightforward documentary is co-produced and directed by Amy Poehler and it’s a nifty introduction to wildly different people who shared a fierce desire to succeed. “Work became our whole life,” Ball says at one point.
Arnaz and Ball have both passed, of course, so their children and admirers — Carol Burnett, Bette Midler, Charo and Norman Lear, among them — fill in the details. A batch of newly discovered audio tapes Ball and Arnaz recorded are artfully used.
“Lucy and Desi” traces the rise, union and collapse of this larger-than-life couple who made a fortune thanks to “I Love Lucy” and remade TV along the way. There’s a lot to chew on and the film lacks a certain sharpness, exploring one fascinating framing device after another only to eventually abandon each one.
Some of the topics that cry out for more attention include the unusual-at-the-time makeup of a white-Latin marriage in the public eye, the notion that Ball paved the way for women to be dominant characters on TV, how ego pulled them apart, why Desi never felt at home and what fueled Lucy’s relentlessness.
“When you’re not beautiful, and you’re not too bright, you attract attention any way you can,” Ball says on one tape, begging for all kinds of psychological unpacking that never comes.
There are few bombshells, but that clearly wasn’t the intention. Even so, viewers unfamiliar with how the pair worked may be stunned to find that every pratfall was carefully and exhaustively rehearsed.
Poehler is helped by the fact that the couple were ever-photographed darlings and uses to great effect outtakes from the couple’s TV shows as well as home movies of the pair frolicking, tending to children or goofing off. She also effectively uses glamour shots of the pair toward the end where a distinct chilliness can be detected.
Clips from a European vacation the family took toward the end that look disastrous — a haggard Ball is almost unrecognizable — are bravely shown. And Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, their daughter, is remarkably frank about her parents’ shortcomings. “He hurt her by his actions and she hurt him by her words,” she says.
What made this union — both members fiercely family-oriented — collapse is elusive. Womanizing, drinking and working too hard are mentioned. Pressure is highlighted: “I think there was a cost to the level of success,” their daughter says. She notes the irony of “I Love Lucy” celebrating a marriage that is tested during every show but wouldn’t last in real life.
In fairness, each of the subjects of “Lucy and Desi” could easily fill a two-hour documentary. Ball’s rise from a B-film star to a world-class physical comedienne (with an assist from no less than Buster Keaton) is staggering, as is Arnaz’s reinvention from a child of privilege in pre-revolution Cuba to penniless American conga star and then powerful TV studio boss.
A third doc could conceivably be made of their impact on show business. The film states that the couple became one of the first lifestyle brands and influenced the future of TV with their Desilu Productions helping create shows like “Mission: Impossible” and “Star Trek” and helping normalize reruns.
The last 20 minutes are tough. All good things must come to an end and that meant their marriage, more work frustrations and increasing infirmities. But one wonderful detail emerges: While Desi was dying of cancer, he and his former wife sat together in his room for the last time and watched old “I Love Lucy” shows. Their daughter remembers them laughing.
“Lucy and Desi,” an Amazon Studios release that hits the streamer Friday, is rated PG for adult situations. Running time: 102 minutes. Three stars out of four.
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits