Review: Amy Poehler creates a captivating tribute in ‘Lucy and Desi’

For anyone who loves Lucy – yes, Lucille Ball – this marvelous documentary from Amy Poehler gives us new reason to celebrate the artistry of an amazing comedian.

The film delivers a compelling introduction to a legendary career navigated with creativity, strength and humanity. This loving film paints a picture of someone we wish we could know better simply because there’s so much to her.

As a documentary filmmaker, Poehler approaches her subject with admiration and care. The director – best known as the star of “Parks and Recreation” – doesn’t rely on the type of material that tribute documentaries traditionally use. Instead of relying on traditional voice over to connect the dots, Poehler creates her clear narrative from a vast collection of audio tapes Ball and husband Desi Arnaz recorded over the years. The filmmaker supplements this rich material with excerpts from other interviews and conversations with the couple which she supports with commentary from show business legends Bette Midler, Norman Lear and Carol Burnett. For the icing on this cake, she adds a curated collection of the best of “I Love Lucy” sequences plus personal memories from Ball’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz.

The comprehensive look at Ball’s life and career immediately becomes an essential bookend to last year’s narrative look at the same events in “Being the Ricardos.” While Aaron Sorkin bent some truth in that film, Poehler celebrates what actually occurred, trusting us to reach our conclusions. Following a sequenced look at key moments in Ball’s life, Poehler never lets the details dilute the impact. She lets Ball and Arnaz do most of the talking as if narrating a director’s cut of their lives. No topic is spared, no subject avoided. Ball and Arnaz become the Ricardos who invented the television sitcom – as well as savvy business people who created an entertainment empire – while struggling to love each other and create a happy home for their children.

This view of the Ball-Arnaz domestic life may offer the most surprise. While we have our memories of Ball’s on-screen antics (and, if we forget, Poehler’s selection of clips is sublime) we may not expect the comedian to be such a loving caregiver for those who depend on her, including her mother, brother and children. Poehler, again using Ball’s words, reveals a sentimental side to Ball, a woman filled with a serious commitment to family and a sadness when her marriage to Arnaz ends just as her run as Lucy Ricardo comes to a close. 

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Film Summary: Lucy and Desi

Content: High. Memories of "I Love Lucy" frame a bittersweet story of a woman wanting to experience more than success on television.
Entertainment: High. Thanks to director Amy Poehler's delicate touch, the film entertains as it makes us think about a special woman.
Message: High. While any return to the past can get trapped in documenting specific moments, the film offers insight into one woman's hopes and disappointments.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to celebrate a golden age of television, and the platinum contributions of a comedian, is welcome.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your family, compare your own memories of loving Lucy on the television screen.

We feel Ball’s pain as the actress struggles to reinvent herself as a performer and as a person.
As Luckinbill remembers her parents, she reveals the realities of people sharing their best and worst with each other. While Poehler celebrates the professional life, Luckinbill shares the person. Together, they make us want to immediately start rewatching all those episodes of “I Love Lucy.”

“Lucy and Desi” runs 1 hour and 43 minutes, is rated PG-13 for thematic events, smoking and language and is streaming on Amazon Prime.