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Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Review of No No: A Dockumentary

On June 12, 1970, Pittsburgh Pirates’ right-handed pitcher Dock Ellis no-hit the San Diego Padres 2-0 while under the influence of LSD. For many, this type of incident would define a career or a life. Incredibly, this was just another moment in the fascinating story of Ellis, which is beautifully told in the new documentary film, No No: A Dockumentary (directed by Jeffrey Radice and distributed by The Orchard).

Ellis was a pitcher of moderate talents, winning 138 games with a 3.46 ERA over 12 major league seasons with five different teams. However, by his own admission, he was in the throes of drug and alcohol addiction throughout, making the success he had all the more remarkable.

Radice’s film redefines the career and legacy of Ellis from the guy who once threw a no-hitter while on acid into something much more complex and meaningful. Shot with a trove of original footage and interviews with numerous family, friends, former teammates, colleagues, and with Ellis (who passed away in 2008) himself, No No does a wonderful job of taking the viewer through the life and times of the complicated hurler.

Ellis, who was African American, played on former Negro League pitcher Chet Brewer’s youth team as an adolescent, using his tutelage and connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates as stepping stones for his own baseball ambitions. He signed with Pittsburgh in 1964 and was in the majors by 1968—becoming an important part of their franchise for the better part of the next decade.

From the very beginning, Ellis was a brash young man playing a game that was still relatively fresh off integration, and in a country that was embroiled in the midst of the Civil Rights movement. Radice moves beyond the stats and standings to detail the pitcher’s outspoken behavior (dressing flamboyantly, saying what was on his mind, wearing curlers in his hair, etc…) to show what a firebrand he was in such a transformative time—including the horrible racism he and his black teammate faced on a regular basis.

Although Ellis developed close relationships with his teammates, especially Hall-of-Fame outfielder Roberto Clemente, he came to have an increasing reliance on substances as his career progressed; a proclivity he shared with some of his mates. His problems only worsened following the tragic 1973 death of Clemente in a plane crash.

Like many players of the era, his dalliance with illicit substances began with alcohol and stimulants (greenies). Unfortunately, he veered into other drugs like marijuana, cocaine and LSD, later admitting that every game he pitched in his career was done while he was under the influence.

Ellis’ no-hitter has been the stuff of baseball legend for years, with only his own admission and the observances of his teammates to verify the veracity of the story. In the film, he admits, “During the time I was pitching the no-hitter in San Diego, I really didn’t see the hitters. All I could tell was if they were on the right side or the left side. As far as seeing the target, the catcher put tape on his fingers so I could see the signals.” His numbers from the day bear that out, as he walked eight batters and hit another, walking a veritable tight rope though nine no-hit innings.

It would be easy to keep this film’s focus on the positive attributes of this colorful personality. To the contrary, Radice makes sure to fully expose him to the viewer, the good, the bad and the ugly. This includes the time he threw at every batter in the Cincinnati Reds’ lineup until he was finally pulled from the game, and even darker behavior like the fits of violence he committed against his ex wives while high or drunk.

Ultimately, when Ellis’ playing career ended, he came to understand what a problem he had. To his credit, he sought treatment, got clean, pursued an education and began to help others who had their own issues with substance abuse. With the narrative coming full circle like this, it allows Ellis to be both the hero, the villain, and finally the hero once again in his own story.

It’s not easy to both root for a person and loathe their actions in the same film. This is accomplished here pretty seamlessly. The obvious impact Ellis had on so many comes pouring out on the screen from the many interview subjects who touch base on every imaginable angle of Ellis’ life.

No No: A Dockumentary is the profile of one of baseball’s most colorful and memorable baseball players. But it is also much more than that. It’s a story of struggle and redemption nestled in a baseball setting. Most importantly, it’s the profile of a man who experienced highs and lows of extreme levels that few ever get to truly know. To see his journey through this extraordinary life, and how those around him saw him and his actions, is quite the feat, and the way Radice pulls it all off is nearly as special in film as Ellis’ no hitter.

Theatrical Release Date: September 5, 2014
VOD Release Date: September 2, 2014

Disclaimer: I was provided with a free copy of the film but received no payment or other consideration for this review.

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