Sundance's timeline annually clashes with the NFL playoffs', but it was a life spent partly in baseball that gave this year’s festival one of its most captivating stories. The curious case of Dock Ellis’ now-infamous no-hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970, thrown under the influence of LSD, is no stranger to Sundance audiences. James Blagden’s 2010 short “Dock Ellis & The LSD No No” is an amusing and concise encapsulation of the feat, featuring animation set to a public radio interview with Ellis. While Jeffrey Radice’s “No No: A Dockumentary” uses some of those same clips to illustrate the events surrounding that day nearly a half-century ago, those expecting a feature-length breakdown of a single athletic achievement will be pleasantly surprised to instead find a much deeper, fulfilling examination of the life that surrounded it.
Much of the effectiveness of "No No" comes from the breadth of Radice's interview subjects, beginning with his family and friends in the Los Angeles community where he was born and raised. As the film documents Ellis’ journey beyond his home community, the film wisely includes their reactions to Ellis’ major league exploits for the Pittsburgh Pirates as a way to keep his full life’s journey in focus.
After breaking onto the 1968 Pirates squad, Ellis eventually became more known for his off-the-field behavior than his achievements on a pitcher's mound. The film avoids presenting an insular, baseball-centric view by connecting Ellis’ actions to a greater cultural relevance. His sport has never been accused of being ahead of cultural and social trends and Radice puts forth Ellis as, for a time, being a standard-bearer of growing 70s attitudes, akin to boxer Muhammad Ali. Through continuously including the media reaction of the time, be it newspaper clippings, TV reports or a monologue joke from Johnny Carson himself, Radice helps show that Ellis was the subject of simultaneous applause and vilification from different corners of the sporting world and beyond As the film charts the dissipation of Ellis’ media savviness, it’s a wry foreshadowing of how the pitcher’s legacy would be shaped by its more sensational aspects rather than what came after his retirement.
“No No” features archival interviews with Ellis outside the original clips that served as the inspiration for Blagden’s short. But the two most visible of his Pirates teammates from that era, Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell, have both since passed. In their stead, Radice assembles interviews with the less-heralded members of those rosters. The resultant mix of perspective from black and white players help portray Dock as more than just the sum of his antics and give a wider view of the team’s role in surmounting the lingering racial obstacles that had persisted decades after Jackie Robinson first stepped on a Major League Baseball field.
Two of the film’s most effective anecdotes come from Ellis’ interactions with both Robinson and Ali, and the contrast between his interactions with the two most famous African-American athletes of all time only deepen the film’s understanding of the unpredictable nature of Ellis’ young personality. Keeping the opinions of his family and teammates in constant focus, Radice shows how Ellis was shaped by those who surrounded him, even as his public persona was one of a rogue trendsetter.
That complexity shines through in how the film treats the no-hitter, first using it in the film’s opening and returning to it later, after we’ve seen the player behind the legend. Although Radice uses rainbow-colored filters to mimic some of the effects of the LSD, he doesn’t overuse it to the point of gimmickry. If anything, using more than he does would feel disingenuous given what we learn of the effects of Ellis’ drug use as the film progresses.
“No No: A Dockumentary” becomes a supremely successful biography in acknowledging the reason for Ellis’ fame while showing how that story is just a sliver of what defined his later years. Quickly seguing from his most famous act to his post-career battles with substance and alcohol abuse is a brilliant subversion of the Ellis mythos, adding honesty and dignity to a man who could have easily been dismissed as a punchline or the answer to a trivia question. Through its acknowledgement of his far-from-saintly moments, "No-No" exists as both a measured and vibrant portrait in equal measure, a fitting tribute to a life that encompassed both of those same qualities.
Criticwire Grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Blagden’s short has found a certain level of success online and those familiar with the no-hitter legend might be curious to see more of the man at its center should the film garner a theatrical or VOD release. While it’s uncertain how exactly such a partnership would work, this would make a fine addition to any network’s coverage of the upcoming baseball season or next year’s 45th anniversary of the titular feat.