This review was originally published on January 25, 2014…
As a huge fan of both baseball and amazing, legendary stories, I’ve long been aware of the great Pittsburgh Pirate pitcher Dock Ellis. Maybe you’ve heard of him before, even if you aren’t a baseball fan, because he’s the only Major League pitcher who ever threw a no-hitter while on LSD. Can you imagine that? I’ve tripped on acid before and even the thought of being in front of a group of people as large as those in a baseball stadium seems like an awful experience.
But Dock Ellis was a different kind of guy, and the documentary “No No: A Dockumentary,” by Jeffrey J. Radice, takes a deeper look at this American folk legend. While Ellis indeed had a pretty incredible life full of ups and downs, this film is a bit scattered and takes off on tangents that involve Dock, but are far larger and more intriguing than him alone.
As a film, “No No: A Dockumentary” is a solid, straightforward sports documentary about a somewhat interesting character. Although Ellis was known for throwing a no-hitter on LSD, he was also known as one of the great “big personalities” in baseball history. The reasons for this are both good and bad, as at once Ellis could be endearing himself to teammates and fans by pushing the envelope and bringing black culture to the forefront, and the next he could be a down and out, wife-beating jerk who only thought of himself. As such, his story is all over the map, and “No No: A Dockumentary” is as well.
Rising up from the streets of Compton, California, Ellis was an outstanding athlete who dedicated himself to baseball from a young age. The Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the few baseball franchises to embrace diversity early on, plucked him out of Southern California and rapidly brought him up through the ranks of their minor league system. There he faced horrible racism but quickly learned to push that out, all the while defining himself as an athlete, a man and a strong African American. He was also developing quite a drinking and drug problem that would haunt, and possibly cut short, his career.
“No No: A Dockumentary” really covers a lot of ground, and I felt there were at least 3-4 different documentaries contained in the film that were as interesting, if not more so, than the story of Dock Ellis. For instance, I was really intrigued by the Pirates organization of the 1970’s who were the first to start an all “minority” team. I also loved the way Ellis and other black athletes of the time kind of shoved black culture of the 1970s in the face of baseball and America. The Civil Rights movement was still so fresh and black athletes with their big collars, hair-rollers and all sorts of other normal behaviors- as far as black culture is concerned- were scary and offensive to white America. While the color barrier had been broken on the diamond decades earlier, there was a still a real disparity between how players of color acted on and off the field.
Come to think of it, “we” still haven’t come too far away from cultural misconceptions and misunderstandings. And that would make an interesting film as well. Not to knock “No No” for what it’s not, I’m just pointing out that the film gets off track when it delves into interesting cultural moments that involve Dock Ellis, but not as a key figure.
I also don’t think any of this is the fault of filmmaker Jeffrey Radice. He has a life to document and that life, which has moments of intrigue, also touches on other moments in history that can’t be glossed over. While Ellis is an interesting guy, the film covers his entire career and the things that happen along the way overshadow his own story which, although the guy was an all-star, he didn’t have a particularly great career. Compounding this issue is the fact that Ellis passed away just as his life was turning around and, as a result, interviews with him are scarce. The third act of the film, Ellis’ redemption, doesn’t have much to go with due to his untimely demise.
In the end, although he did some great things later in life and did something legendary in terms of drug and baseball culture, I’m still not sure the life and times of Dock Ellis demand a film without his notorious drug-infused pitching feat. Still, I enjoyed this film, it’s excellent soundtrack and it’s peek at a true American cult hero.
ADDED BONUS: Here’s a great song about Dock Ellis and his amazing trip!