NO-NO: A DOCKUMENTARY
Pros: Outstanding selection of archival footage; everyone likes a story of redemption right?
Cons: Doesn’t stray much from the typical trajectory of these sorts of stories
On Friday, June 12, 1970, professional baseball player Dock Ellis pitched a(n admittedly ugly) no-hitter in a game between his Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres. This is an accomplishment in its own right, but it’s made even more astonishing by the fact that Ellis was under the influence of LSD while playing. Unable to clearly see the opposing batters, Ellis had to rely on reflective tape around the catcher’s fingers to determine the signals being called. At one point during the game, he even recalled hallucinating Richard Nixon working the plate as umpire and imagined rocker Jimi Hendrix swinging his guitar instead of a Padres player ready to bat. Needless to say, while there’s been some dispute about the veracity of the account, the game has gone down in pro sports history, serving as the starting point for 2014’s No No: A Dockumentary, which chronicles the colorful life of the Ellis himself.
Starting off with a trippy intro that relates this most famous story about Ellis, No No continues on by following the man’s career from his early days playing ball around his California neighborhood through various minor league assignments. In the 1960s, the world of professional baseball was quite a different place then it is today – particularly for black players assigned to teams based in the American south. Though he was, for the first time, faced with discrimination, Ellis didn’t stop standing up for his beliefs, and by the time he broke into the majors in 1968 playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was an outspoken proponent of African-American rights (eventually being dubbed the “Muhammad Ali of Baseball” due to his attention-grabbing antics). This caused some problems throughout his playing career, since Ellis frequently got into disputes with team management who didn’t particularly appreciate his challenges to their authority. Still, Ellis won the World Series with the Pirates in 1971, and his solid numbers ensured that he was able to find a home in pro ball, spending time with both New York teams, Oakland and Texas before retiring after the 1979 season.
On thing a viewer clearly takes away from this Dockumentary is that Ellis was a bit of a hothead and troublemaker, though for the most part, he seemed to not only know what he was doing, but why he was doing it. One of the key moments in the film occurs when Ellis himself, recorded in the mid-2000s, reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson. This letter essentially thanked Ellis for continuing the fight for equal rights for minority players in the world of pro sports, but also warned him about the toll that this fight might have on him. Ellis gets quite emotional while reading the letter, and it’s immediately clear how much the letter and the sentiments it echoed meant to him.
It’s cool that the filmmakers were able to secure actual interview footage in which Ellis tells his own story; he passed away in 2008 at the age of 63.
This emotional moment comes as a bit of a surprise during the film however since a good deal of No No details the wild lifestyle and heavy drug use that accompanied Ellis’s playing career. In the years after his retirement, Ellis admitted that he never played a game without some sort of drugs – whether they be amphetamines, cocaine, or even LSD – in his system, and one sidepoint in the film is to detail how rampant drugs were in the MLB of the 1970s. Former players interviewed here attest to the fact that uppers like Dexamyl were used by an estimated sixty percent or more of pro ball players because it gave them an edge that they wouldn’t have had otherwise, and even after the so-called “greenies” were banned, underground usage continued virtually unabated. Ellis’s substance problems didn’t stop on the field however, and his rampant abuse of alcohol would eventually ruin several of his marriages.
Ellis, center, living it up with teammates.
To be honest, much of the material contained in No No could be taken from any number of athlete or celebrity profiles: many of these folks go down the road to substance abuse when they acquire large amounts of money and have the free time to use it. Some of these stories don’t end up so well, but for every tragic outcome, there’s a positive one and Ellis’s story certainly worked out quiet nicely. Following his retirement, Ellis got clean and began telling his story to audiences who would most be in need of it. Aside from working for the betterment of up-and-coming athletes, Ellis spent a great deal of time working with inmates, and it’s obvious from interviews seen in the film that he viewed his accomplishments in the field of counseling as some of his greatest.
Always the flashy – and provocative- dresser.
While one could argue that the basic story of redemption contained in No No is pretty familiar, the film certainly benefits from the fact that the person at its heart is an incredibly fascinating character. The various anecdotes revealed in the film are sometimes quite amusing, occasionally cringe-inducing, but always captivating, and a viewer winds up getting a sense that Ellis always fought the good fight even if he went about it in ways that were somewhat unsavory. Directed by Jeff Radice, the film is as wild and colorful as its subject in terms of its look, making nice use of period-flavor music. There’s splendid use of a large quotient of archival footage, including film taken of various games which Ellis participated in, and I was also rather stunned by the amount of candid and press photographs assembled for use here. It’s true that No No contains the usual amount of talking head interviews with former teammates and players, family members, and sports journalists, but I found the film to be more varied in its presentation than many vaguely similar productions, even including animated sequences such as one which relates the story of Ellis’s showdown with opposing player Reggie Jackson.
Part of the animated sequence from the film, showing Ellis staring down an opposing batter.
It might go without saying that baseball fans will probably enjoy this film the most, but I don’t necessarily think an appreciation of the sport is absolutely required – No No to some extent works equally as well as a chronicle of the ways in which society was changing in the late ‘60s and 1970s. Director Radice does a fine job of framing the events in the events of the film with what was happening outside of pro baseball, a fact which ultimately emphasizes the ways in which Ellis helped draw attention to the plight of minority players and initiate change – for instance, the 1971 Pirates team was the first time that a major league team used an all-black starting lineup in a game. It’s difficult to ignore the fact that No No: A Dockumentary plays out similarly to other films and stories dealing with characters who fall from grace only to pick themselves back up later on: Ellis’s story is virtually identical to the one told by hockey documentary The Unreal Life of Derek Sanderson that just premiered earlier this year on cable. Still, I think there are enough unique and original elements to Dock Ellis’s story to make this slick-looking Dockumentary worthwhile. Check it out if you get the chance.
2/10: A few accounts of aggressive domestic violence; no onscreen blood.
5/10: Isolated instances of profanity, including the f-bomb.
1/10: Glimpses of scantily clad ladies and some brief innuendo.
5/10: The whole LSD no-hitter thing may give this some appeal to the drug crowd, but it’s more a fairly typical but well-done sports documentary.
“I’m not one of those guys that won 300 games and the Cy Young Award, but I was a guy that was personable, I was controversial, my entire career I was an angry black man. Although I was there playing a dream of a lot of people, but I was angry.”