On June 12th, 1970, Dock Ellis, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates known for his oversized personality on and off the diamond, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. A no-hitter is a game when a team cannot earn a single hit, a pretty phenomenal feat: only 282 no-hitters have been thrown in Major League Baseball since 1875. But what makes this particular “no-no” (as no-hitters are known colloquially) even more astounding is that Ellis, who up until that time was most notorious for wearing tiny hair curlers in his fro during practice (and subsequently being forced to remove said curlers), was high on LSD for the entire game. This is the starting point for the delightful new documentary “No No: A Dockumentary,” which, while focusing a fair amount of time on this particular game, also goes to great lengths to show you the other sides of Ellis —as a ballplayer and human being.
Ellis grew up wanting to play professional baseball, and exhibited a heightened ability to process the almost mathematical precision of the game at a very early age. He could also throw hard. He got in trouble in high school and was threatened with expulsion unless he joined the high school team; he agreed. One of his childhood friends from California said that if he didn’t play baseball, he probably would have ended up some kind of gangster. Either way, he had swagger.
In the late sixties, he was farmed out to the AAA teams, sometimes in the Deep South, where segregation was still very much a part of everyday life. One of his teammates recalls that he would return to the hotel after practice and find a Ku Klux Klan insignia carved onto the door of his hotel room. When he was drafted to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1968, he found himself in an unlikely, groundbreaking team that oftentimes exclusively started black players, so that every Pirate on the field was African American. A typically insensitive newspaper headline from the period trumpeted how much “soul” the team had. Woof.
Of course, the grueling work schedule and abundance of daytime games meant that, at least according to Ellis, a vast majority of major league players were popping some kind of pill. For Ellis, the pill of choice was “greenies” —an amphetamine called Dexamyl advertised to housewives as a way to increase their productivity. As Dock himself admits, “I pitched every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs.” He was also an alcoholic.
None of which can diminish his accomplishments, which were numerous. Ellis was an outspoken black radical who would become confrontational regarding what prejudices in the game. His cousin said that he called himself the “Muhammad Ali of baseball.” And after Ellis waged a successful campaign in the press to have two African American starting pitchers in the 1971 All-Star game, Jackie Robinson wrote him a note thanking him for his trailblazing effort. One of the more touching moments of the documentary is when Ellis reads that note from Robinson aloud and starts to break down into tears.
But undoubtedly most remember Ellis for his drug use, which escalated in intensity after the untimely death of his teammate Roberto Clemente, whose plane crashed while on a humanitarian mission in South America. There are interviews with his first two wives, who recount horrifying, violent episodes when Ellis spun out of control. And after his major league career was over, at the end of the seventies, he spoke out about the rampant drug abuse in the majors and how hard it was to get help, after which he cleaned up his act and became a counselor himself.
What’s interesting about “No No” is that it was conceived several years ago, beginning shortly before Ellis’ untimely death, at the age of 63, in 2008. Director Jeffrey Radice, who learned of Ellis’ story while doing a documentary about LSD, was perplexed about how to continue without his subject (it goes without saying that Ellis gave a great interview), and chose to continue by contacting as many people from Ellis’ life that were still alive and willing to chat, which gives the movie a much richer texture, and it’s probably a better film because of it. “No No” features interviews with many who knew Ellis at various points in his life, from his childhood friends —whom he would often call later in life strung out on one thing or another, desperately looking to connect— to former teammates to, um, Ron Howard, who cast Ellis in his workplace comedy “Gung Ho.”
Ellis was definitely a hero to many, and almost all of the interviewees speak about him with a hushed kind of reverence. But he could also be a total fuck-up, which adds a level of humility that would have been missed had the documentary been about a player who was more outwardly “great.” It should also be noted that he was a flashy dresser, wearing the largest, loudest collars that you have ever seen in your life. Ellis’ duds would make David O. Russell and his costume designer positively wilt.
Sometimes Radice just can’t help himself, throwing every bit of editorial pizzazz he can think of at the screen. Graphics? Check. Animated sequences? Check. Gloopy visual effects, archival footage and sequences from a bizarrely antiquated educational film about propriety on the baseball field? Check, check, and check. While sometimes unnecessary and grating, this kind of zippy, visual storytelling works most of the time due to the fact that the images are set to the movie’s peerless soundtrack, supervised by music wizard Randall Poster, and the infectiously funky score by Beastie Boys member Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz. If the intention was to pile up the embellishments in an effort to emphasize Ellis’ impact on the pop landscape, it worked. If Radice and his editorial team (led by Sam Wainwright Douglas) just thought it looked cool, well, then that works too.
“No No” isn’t a cinematic no-hitter; it’s at least fifteen minutes too long, and the ending peters out into a forced, boggy marsh of sentimentality that often waylays narrative features about addiction (it instantly brought to mind the gooey third act of “Flight”). There’s also only a passing reference to Ellis’ children, though you’d think there would be rather a lot of drama and conflict therein. Still, “No No” is a jazzy, joyful exploration of a man that, if he wasn’t able to actually change the system, was at least happy with giving it the middle finger. [B+]
This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.