If you watch any footage of the June 12, 1970, baseball game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the San Diego Padres, there’s really nothing to it — other than the fact that Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter, of course. But if you’re told about the game, particularly how Ellis was high on LSD the entire time, how he couldn’t really see the batters and could only focus on catcher Jerry May’s signals thanks to reflective tape on May’s fingers, that’s an amazing story. And a documentary is therefore the best way to present this story, with a lot of people talking about it.
No No: A Dockumentary is about Ellis’s whole life, the ups and downs. There’s stuff about segregation and racism encountered while in the minors in the South in the mid-’60s and how in the majors he helped push even further the barrier broken by Jackie Robinson. There’s stuff about his later sobriety and work as a drug counselor. There’s a bit about him abusing his second wife. There’s much on how great a ballplayer he was for much of his career, especially during the 1971 season. But the main event, the primary appeal and entry point for viewers, is that one miraculous game, clips from which open the feature and then come back again later in its chronological place.
It’s difficult for me to watch a biographical documentary and not wonder about Hollywood’s likely take on the person. Ellis seems like the perfect candidate for a dramatic sports biopic, but how would his most famous moment be portrayed? Unless they went for untruthful exaggeration and had him acting wildly on the mound, it might not be very cinematic. Yet having him act crazy would make the event less remarkable. An attempt to depict Ellis’s mind and how he saw everything would be a way of being more visual and, to some extent, faithful. But it would probably be a silly distraction. This film could have done all that with reenactments, too, and thankfully it doesn’t. It’s totally unnecessary.
With any piece of folklore, it’s actually a lot more interesting to see how people speak of it. That excitement of relaying a memory and putting a personal spin on it. No No has a bunch of Ellis’s old teammates and family members on display reminiscing about that one game and many other things, and collectively they make for a very watchable film in spite of the storytelling being so aural. Although Ellis died in 2008, before production on the doc began, he does also appear, by way of an archive interview that aesthetically fits well enough that I assumed it’d been shot for this project. With all these testimonials mixed with the simple television coverage and a funky, slightly psychedelic score by Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz setting the tone, we have a perfect picture of what and how it all happened.
But even if a doc is the best possible outlet for Ellis’s life story and No No is the best possible doc for the occasion, it’s still a rather standard film. Pretty good but not great. There’s too much filler, probably the fault of someone thinking the talking heads aren’t enough — and usually that would true, but most of the interviewees here are so dynamic that cutting away from them, unless for totally relevant images and game telecast footage, is a bad idea. Some of that filler is strewn-about clips from an obscure 1981 anti-drug movie produced by the Kroc Foundation called Dugout, which I don’t think works at all. There’s also inconsistent use of animation.
There is one moment that I absolutely love, though, where director Jeff Radice does not show us the person speaking and it’s to tremendous effect. The person is Ellis, from an archive interview where he’s reading a letter to him from Robinson and he becomes so suddenly filled with emotion that he has difficultly finishing. We only see the letter on screen with Ellis in voiceover, so we only hear his quivering speech build up until he’s audibly fully sobbing. The sounds are vivid enough to make us picture his face and, more importantly, what he’s feeling.
Another thing No No does very well is address a few points that are quite interesting from a modern perspective without overly stressing any parallels. There’s a running commentary, mainly early on, that all kinds of drugs were helpful to the players and almost everyone was doing them. Apparently it was even mandatory for a short time for the Pirates to take Dexamyl (aka “greenies”), uppers that would keep them awake and focused. Later, marijuana and then cocaine were very popular among the major leaguers. Nowadays the drugs of choice are specifically intended for performance enhancement, but clearly acid may have been that for Ellis, too (he never did it again, so we’ll never know if it was the LSD giving him the edge on the field that day).
Iconoclastic self-expression and image is another theme for Ellis’s story, again especially early on when he was getting suspended for wearing curlers in his hair while playing and when he was into flashy clothes that could gain him a lot of notice while he was starting out. Yes, Dennis Rodman’s name is mentioned. Half of it is connected to his African-American identity and part of his means of directing attention on players’ rights issues, and not just for black athletes. And half is said to have been for monetary gain, because more notice could easily lead to more fans and therefore more pay. Ellis was obviously a smart man with both intentions. Throughout the doc, people keep stating that he was a guy who always knew what he was doing.
Yet as far as the drugs are concerned, in general and with the no-hitter, that’s not exactly a confirmed fact. The statement is surely in conflict with the wife-beating and the need for rehab and even in how he tells certain elements of his most celebrated achievement. The film wants to show us that there’s more to his legacy than the legendary no-hitter and also shed more light behind that feat as more of a mistake than a motivated act of rebellion to be glamorized, and that further abuses of substances were part of a larger problem caused by grief following the sudden death of his friend and teammate Roberto Clemente (in a plane crash in 1972).
No No sells itself on and as the story of that one crazy game and then opens us up to a broader biography that reveals Ellis to be so much more than his reputation and to kind of level out the significance and romanticization of the LSD incident. It’s like the positive sort of bait and switch we saw previously with The Queen of Versailles (draw in the reality TV fans and then give them more depth than they’re used to). And for that it does an honorable service to the man. I doubt he won’t still forever be remembered first and foremost as the no-hitter-on-LSD guy. But at least we have this doc to look to for a fuller understanding of who that guy was.
This review was originally published during the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2014.