A version of this story about “Lucy and Desi” also appeared in the Down to the Wire: Comedy issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Most acclaimed comic actors with an eye on directing a feature typically harvest a vehicle for themselves (Mike Myers, Ben Stiller, etc.) to let them test their mettle to various levels of success. And Amy Poehler did just that, with the female-forward Netflix comedies “Wine Country” and “Moxie,” but few could have guessed what her follow-up to those films would be. The “Parks and Recreation” vet went big on theme for her third effort, with the focus being “I Love Lucy” Hollywood power couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz in the Amazon Prime Video documentary “Lucy & Desi.”
“I was working at White Horse Pictures, and they were sort of figuring out their next project,” says “Lucy” editor Robert A. Martinez, “and originally this was very Lucy-heavy with Desi not being in the picture quite as much. And eventually they told me that Amy Poehler was going to be the director, and that was the clincher for me, just to pick her brain and have her thoughts and life experiences in there. I was so grateful.”
The idea for the film was to fully explore the love story between these two very disparate icons, leading to their benchmark TV production company Desilu, without an abundance of surface gloss. The documentary not only filters in first-hand accounts of their legacy by those who knew them (Carol Burnett, their daughter Lucie Arnaz-Luckinbill), but even the idols in their own voice, especially Ball, whose throaty, vulnerable voice is heard in revealing, moving audio that the team found in a tucked-away box.
“It was just really getting to the heart of the people. Iconic performers or entertainers kind of get flattened into a 2D image”, Martinez says, adding that the inclusion of subjects such as Cuban playwright Eduardo Machado deepened the diversity of the project (he reveals that Arnaz brought sophistication and credence to Latino culture in the 1950s practically unseen elsewhere in TV).
“We sort of dove into the archival and were looking for a way to make it make it intimate,” says Martinez, who unearthed similar gems in cutting 2021’s Bee Gees music doc “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (which netted him his first Emmy nomination for editing). “Our producer, Jeanne Elfant Festa, was at the estate in Palm Springs and she saw this metal, tin box on a higher shelf with all of these cassettes and a few reels. And she asked them, ‘What’s that? Can we take a look at it?’ I think they were done for an article for a women’s magazine, but they weren’t created with the intention of anyone ever listening to them.”
Those audio finds are the heart and soul of the film, with Ball’s divulgences crafting a vulnerable soul, with all the self-doubt and struggle to be seen that any actor could identify with, not to mention a realistic reflection on the highs-and-lows of the duo’s tabloid-ridden marriage. The authenticity also proved to be a terrific foil for the filmmakers’ unexpected competition (on the same streaming service, no less) when Aaron Sorkin’s “Being the Ricardos” (also about the “I Love Lucy” duo) dropped just before their project at the end of last year before their January premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
“Maybe people in the production were more aware of stuff than I was. I kind of go into a bit of a bunker. Isolation helps me focus. I don’t think it influenced me in any way, but it was kind of beneficial for both projects,” says Martinez. “It’s pretty amazing how they’ve transcended all of these decades, and there’s still this huge appetite to know about them.”
Martinez is hard at work on another top-secret feature-length doc and it’s a milieu that he finds brings out the best in him. Says the busy editor: “I kind of enjoy that ticking-clock, every-frame-counts style. Right now, with some of the docuseries projects [that are longer], it’s a different rhythm. With something like ‘Lucy and Desi,’ we got an hour-and-a-half to two hours to tell this, so you really have to know what your story is.”
“Lucy & Desi” is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video