No No: A Dockumentary (2014)
Editor’s Notes: No No: A Dockumentary opens in limited release today, Friday September 5th.
It’s a safe bet that even the most casual baseball fan has heard of Dock Ellis. A promising pitcher who signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1968, Ellis made a name for himself quickly, culminating in a no-hitter in June of 1970. In later years, Ellis would call his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres “messy,” and it’s no wonder: he pitched this no-no while tripping on LSD, a feat that would become one of those bizarre incidents recalled by both baseball fans and comedians.
No No: A Dockumentary uses Dock Ellis’ spectacular no-hitter as the central hub from which all else in his life radiated outward.
No No: A Dockumentary uses Dock Ellis’ spectacular no-hitter as the central hub from which all else in his life radiated outward. This does a bit of a disservice to a man with one hell of an interesting life. But this interesting life was also a complicated one, full of strange behavior, tall tales and even violence. That’s why it’s so baffling that No No doesn’t address the insistence by several sports reporters, many of whom watched the game that night in 1970, that Ellis was absolutely not high on LSD; then again, considering Ellis admits to having played every Major League game under the influence of some kind of drug, mostly Greenies, quibbling over which drug he was high on seems like a moot point.
Deftly recalling the heady feel of the early 1970s, complete with one of the most funktastic soundtracks to ever grace a documentary film, No No: A Dockumentary is as much about a lost moment of American culture as it is about baseball. It was a time when baseball and counterculture collided, when the eccentricities of sports stars and celebrities were expected, their participation in social issues celebrated, and Ellis fit the bill. He was a stylish, hard-partying jock, an outspoken criticism of racism, and the kind of guy who deliberately beaned everyone who came up to the plate in a misguided moment of psychological warfare.
As fellow Pirates teammate Al Oliver says in No No, games “can be won or lost in the clubhouse,” and for all of his issues, Ellis was liked, especially in the clubhouse where he kept morale high. Friends and colleagues tell anecdotes that explain, with varying degrees of success, why they put up with him, while his ex wife Austine is given a chance to tell the unsettling tale of her last violent, frightening night with Ellis. No No may indulge in a little polishing and glossing over at times, but does the right thing here and allows her to tell the whole story without equivocation.
Holding it all together is the music, early 1970s funk and disco that changes to late-70s punk as time passes.
News articles and interviews from friends and teammates flesh out Ellis’ character, but No No doesn’t rely on a strict chronological narrative. The story of Dock Ellis is not an easy one to tell, and in trying to make sense of his life, many of the milestones achieved by both Ellis and the Pittsburgh Pirates are told out of order. Holding it all together is the music, early 1970s funk and disco that changes to late-70s punk as time passes.
Just as the music changes, Ellis’ place in the culture changes, too, and when 1978 rolls around and he’s still talking of turning on some Jimi Hendrix and dropping acid, he sounds square and out of touch. That brief moment of outrageousness that defined the era he flourished in was gone, leaving Ellis behind, the former countercultural icon transformed into a fun, middle-aged friend who wears an umbrella hat while he fishes. It didn’t all end with his baseball career, of course — there were movies, his life told in verse, even redemption of a kind — the full life of a complicated, tangled-up human being.
Deftly recalling the heady feel of the early 1970s, complete with one of the most funktastic soundtracks to ever grace a documentary film, No No: A Dockumentary is as much about a lost moment of American culture as it is about baseball.