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A different sort of Desilu production

Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz are the subjects of Amy Poehler’s documentary, ‘Lucy and Desi,’ streaming on Amazon Prime

Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball in "Lucy and Desi."Library of Congress/Associated Press

Just before the end of “Lucy and Desi,” Amy Poehler’s lively new documentary about Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, we glimpse the couple in a home movie, on a tandem bicycle. She’s the one riding in front. That makes sense. As both the documentary and Aaron Sorkin’s recent Oscar-nominated fictional feature, “Being the Ricardos,” make plain, yes, Desi was a lot more important than given credit for. But Lucy was the straw that stirred that very fizzy drink.

Think of “Lucy and Desi” as “Being the Ricardos” for real. It starts streaming on Amazon Prime Friday.

On the business side, it was a different story. The couple’s enormously successful production company was named Desilu, not the other way around, for a reason. Ball was a canny and gifted executive in her own right, but both “Lucy and Desi” and “Being the Ricardos” show how hard Arnaz worked on the business side and how good he was at it.

The documentary has a couple of special things going for it. First, there’s the perspective Poehler brings to the subject as a fellow comic actress. Ball was a pretty tough customer. In no small part that was because she had a very tough path to follow. The road from Jamestown, N.Y., to TV superstardom was long and hard. Conversely, the road from Santiago de Cuba to TV stardom, for Arnaz, was hard, too, albeit in different ways.


Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in "Lucy and Desi."Library of Congress/Associated Press

The other great strength of the film is that Poehler has a wealth of home movies, family photos, and, above all, private audiotapes to draw on. “Lucy and Desi” doesn’t have a voice-over narration. It doesn’t need one, since the tapes let Ball and Arnaz, in effect, provide their own.

Multiple talking heads weigh in: Carol Burnett, Bette Midler (both of whom Ball encouraged professionally), Norman Lear, and Charo. Yes, that irrepressible talk-show standby of the ‘60s pops up; her first husband, Xavier Cugat, played a key role in Arnaz’s career. Lucy and Desi’s daughter, Lucie Arnaz Luckinbill, is such a frequent presence she’s almost an emcee. Her brother, Desi Jr., is heard from a couple of times but doesn’t appear on camera, which seems odd.


There are many clips, of course, not just from “I Love Lucy” (1951-57), “The Lucy Show” (1962-68), and “Here’s Lucy” (1968-74) — can you tell who the selling point was? — but also from several of the movies Ball appeared in. Seeing her share a screen with Katharine Hepburn, in “Stage Door” (1937), is a bit of a when-worlds-collide moment. Worlds collide in a different way in the footage from Arnaz’s bandleader days. “Babalu”? “Babalu”!

One title that goes unmentioned is “Mame” (1974). The film version of the Broadway hit musical was a disastrous attempt at Lucy brand extension. The chief complaint about “Lucy and Desi” is what a generally rosy picture it paints. Much of the rosiness is deserved, of course, and the documentary does mention Desi’s drinking and acknowledges Lucy’s hard edge. It sort of has to, that edge being pretty hard to miss. But overall “Lucy and Desi” is very much a valentine. “I Love Lucy and Desi”? Yes, that title would definitely work — nor would it be unjustified.



Directed by Amy Poehler. Written by Mark Monroe. Streaming on Amazon Prime. 103 minutes. PG (thematic elements, language, smoking, lots and lots — and lots — of smoking).


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.