By Drew Taylor | The Playlist January 26, 2014 at 2:03PM
On June 12th, 1970, a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates named Dock Ellis, known for his oversized personality on and off the diamond, threw a no-hitter against the San Diego Padres. A no-hitter is defined by a team not being able to earn a single hit and it’s a pretty phenomenal feat, with only 282 no-hitters having been thrown in Major League Baseball since 1875. But what makes this particular no-no 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 intelligence and ability to pick up on 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 that 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 living. 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 talked about how much “soul” the team had. Woof.
Of course, at the time, 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 that was advertised to housewives as a way to increase their productivity. As Dock himself admits, “I pitch every game in the major leagues under the influence of drugs.” He was also an alcoholic.
This isn’t said to diminish his accomplishments, because they were many. Ellis was an outspoken black radical who would become confrontational and public about what he perceived were 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 work. 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 what everyone will undoubtedly remember Ellis for is the drugs, which escalated in intensity and frequency of usage 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 anyone to help, after which he cleaned up his act and became a counselor himself.
What’s interesting about “No No” is that it was conceived many 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 does give the movie a much fuller, 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 people, and almost all of the interviewees speak about him with a hushed kind of reverence. But he could also be a total fuck-up, and that adds a level of humility that would otherwise have been missing, had the documentary been about a player who was more outwardly “great.” Though Ellis had only a brief run in the majors, he did manage to shake things up, and that’s enough for msot. 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, though, and throws 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 a whole lot of drama and conflict in those relationships. But Radice doesn’t talk to any of them—in fact, they are barely mentioned at all, which seems like a rather large hole that needed to be filled. 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+]