A Solid Triple Down the Third Base Line
When Dock Ellis took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 12th, 1970, he was high as a kite. Hopped up on acid and reeling from the night before, reports say he could barely see the plate. He then went on to pitch a no hitter. Long considered a controversial yet talented player, No No: A Dockumentary peels back the media headlines to examine Dock as a flawed yet fascinating person. Thanks to a dedication to brutal honesty and some exceptional first hand account, director Jeff Radice’s first feature is compelling as it is entertaining.
No No documents the scope of Ellis’ life from a variety of interesting angles. From his initial baseball break to his work educating young players on the dangers of substance abuse, Ellis is far more interesting than the newspapers made him out to be. Told through the testimonies of his family, friends and archival interviews, Radice succeeds in piecing together a complete portrait of a singular personality.
Often documentaries are only as interesting as the people being interviewed. Luckily for Radice, Ellis’ life was filled with people as fun and exuberant as he was. From ex-teammates to close family friend, everyone delivers their stories with punch and flair. This gives the doc energy, important when the archival footage gets reused at an alarming rate. Not a huge problem given the time period but after the sixth shot of Ellis chomping gum on the mound, the repetition becomes noticeable. Ellis’ revolutionary approaches to the media, his fight for equal rights and his late life social work are all thoroughly explored.
But it’s not all good times and wacky hair styles. No No balances the good about Ellis with some of his most brutal bad. First-hand accounts of domestic abuse and the consequences of a life spent partying are examined with painful honesty. The testimonies of ex-wives recounting their ugliest incidents are shocking. Not only are they tough to listen to, the women telling the tales brim with bravery in the face of personal turmoil.
While it’s more of a consequence of the polarizing subject, there is a minor issue of mixed message. When going through the drug addled moments of his baseball career, there’s a light, carefree tone but when we get to his late life social work, the vibe become preachy. There’s also a solid amount of filler as the doc takes detours to talk about rampant use of performance enhancing “greenies” and the Pirates’ run to the 1971 World Series. It all serves to explain why Ellis was who he was but the tangents stray too far from the central story.
Dock Ellis was more than a pop culture oddity. He was a singular personality who allowed himself to be himself. With flashy cars, bright clothing and a comically intense “screw you” attitude, Ellis was an agent of change for a league desperate to break the chains of segregation. The man wasn’t perfect or even very likable but thanks to No No: A Dockumentary, we witness the positive effects he had on the people around him, even when he was at his lowest. A documentary of careful insight into a fascinating figure.
Score: 8 out of 10