Review by-Jarrett Leahy
In the psychedelic decade of the 1970’s, no athlete partied harder than Pittsburgh Pirates’ star pitcher Dock Ellis. An eccentric character with a propensity for illegal substances, Ellis’ career highlight was MLB’s most infamous no-hitter. Flamboyant and unapologetically forthright, Ellis was an outspoken advocate for the rights of players and African Americans, and he later used his experiences with addiction to help others battling their own inner demons. Dock Phillip Ellis, Jr. was born March 11th, 1945 in Los Angeles, CA. A self-proclaimed troublemaker, Ellis first became involved with drugs and alcohol at age 14, around the time his father’s death. Signed by the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1964, Ellis made his major league debut in June of 1968 and quickly became a contributor to the success of the Pirates. Ever the entertainer, Ellis was a beloved teammate, as seen firsthand by the number of former colleagues who agreed to participate in the documentary. Through candid interviews with Ellis, along with a slew of friends and family, we get an intimate examination of the extreme highs and frightening lows of this complicated antihero. With a subject as compelling and complicated as Dock Ellis is, I appreciated that the film doesn’t gloss over the more sordid tales of his outlandish life. This is thanks to, in large part, Doc Ellis himself, who never attempts to whitewash any of the more shocking moments of his past life. As I sat in the theater listening to Mr. Ellis share one crazy story after another, I couldn’t decide what was more astonishing: that he was able to survive what he inflicted upon himself or that he managed to clean up his act and later went on to help others who battle similar issues with addiction.
As the title suggests, filmmaker Jeff Radice’s directorial debut centers around what is now considered the most infamous event of Dock Ellis’ career, his no-hitter against the San Diego Padres that he later claimed was achieved while high on LSD. As the film explains in great detail, Dock was known around the league for pitching under the influence (he estimated taking upwards of 15-17 amphetamine pills per start). Ellis talks about how the opposing players had a suspicion he may have been high; they just didn’t know on what. Through a hallucinatory barrage of art renditions, Radice offers a vivid visual of Ellis’ description of the event. While this story has long since been doubted by reporters who were there that day, who am I to question the man’s claim, and like the famous line in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
In a decade known for flamboyant decadence, Dock Ellis,who died in 2008, was one of the most splashy, colorful, and bombastic players ever to don a Major League uniform. A beloved teammate whose unabashed outspokenness helped usher in the era of free agency and improved player rights, I found Radice’s film to be a fitting tribute to both the man and the decade it highlights. Nominated for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, No No: A Dockumentary is an inspiring and poignant examination of one of baseball’s most complicated stars.-JL