- No No: A Dockumentary dir. by Jeff Radice
There is no clear formula for becoming a sports legend, although it seems that some combination of real-world exploits and mythic mystique is essential. Objective markers of performance and competitive success matter to some extent; we tend to bestow “legendary” status on men and women who consistently dominate their competition. But there are also legendary performances, captivating one-off events. The legend of late professional baseball player Dock Ellis exemplifies the latter, but with a crucial wrinkle—Ellis delivered a legendary performance that might not have actually happened. To baseball scholars and fans of a certain age, Ellis’s name immediately evokes this mythic performance: a no-hitter he pitched as a Pittsburgh Pirate, against the San Diego Padres on June 12, 1970, allegedly while under the influence of the psychedelic drug LSD.
An All-Star Game starter and World Series champion in 1971, Ellis amassed a respectable resume over an eleven-year Major League Baseball career that took him to five teams. Brash and outspoken, Ellis also came to symbolize an era when American professional athletes—especially those of color—became more vocal in their demands to be treated fairly, not just as ballplayers and laborers but as people. Having famously been censured for wearing curlers in his hair, Ellis is remembered as much for his defiant and flamboyant persona as for any of his pitching accomplishments. But the legend of Dock Ellis—and his place in the pantheon of American folk heroes—will always be inextricably tied to that one game and that one question: could anyone, even a known drug user like Ellis, actually no-hit a major league baseball team while tripping on acid?
Given the centrality of the famous no-hitter to the narrative of Ellis’s life and career, it is appropriate that first-time director Jeffrey Radice titled his 2014 biographical documentary on Ellis No No: A Dockumentary. Conceding to Ellis’s legend from the very start, Radice opens with some rare, grainy footage of the contentious no-hitter. The scenes from the game make for a powerful opening sequence, but Radice quickly and adeptly shifts gears, zooming out from that one game to tell Ellis’s life story—not unlike a good pitcher who knows how to mix up his stuff. Over the ensuing ninety minutes, No No takes full advantage of the documentary format not just to tell the story of Ellis’s days in baseball but to vibrantly contextualize Ellis within the sociocultural rhythms of 1970s’ America, a feat accomplished through a combination of skilled filmmaking and excellent source material. With outstanding editing, a great soundtrack and original score, and some very cool original animations, this is an exceptionally well-made film. Viewers should not be surprised to learn that it was nominated for a prestigious Grand Jury Prize at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
For all the technical skills displayed by Radice and his team, the historical content of the film is ultimately what makes No No a great introduction to Ellis and a window into 1970s’ baseball and American popular culture. Original interviews with Ellis, as well as his teammates, contemporaries, family, and friends, make up the brunt of the film. Radice [End Page 402] eschews a narrator, and his deft pacing and editing lend an authentic feeling to the film that suggests viewers are learning about the real Dock Ellis, a complicated and troubled man who occasionally touched greatness. No No uses emotional testimony from ex-wives and former teammates to put the ups and downs of Ellis’s life into perspective: his early dominance on the mound and his unceremonious decline, his drug use, his fear of failure, the heartbreak he suffered when teammate Roberto Clemente died in 1971, and the burdens he shouldered as a prominent African American in the public eye, both during his playing years and his postretirement life as a substance-abuse counselor for professional athletes and at-risk youth.
Ellis himself was famously unapologetic for his actions, and Radice deserves credit for avoiding the temptation to...