SXSW review: ‘No No: A Dockumentary’
As much as anyone who played professional baseball, Dock Ellis let it all hang out.
A California native who, by his own admission, would have probably ended up a gangster were it not for a good pitching arm, decent control and a sliding fastball that would just drop out of the air, Ellis wore curlers in his hair on the field, partied absurdly hard, once beanballed Reggie Jackson, attempted to hit every batter in the Reds’ “Big Red Machine” lineup in ‘74, worshiped teammate Roberto Clemente and forefather Jackie Robinson, co-authored a memoir with poet Donald Hall and, yes, once pitched a no-hitter (or “no-no”) in 1970 while “high as a Georgia pine” on LSD in 1970.
Told through a mix of talking heads, archival footage, home movies and a variety of animation styles, “No No: A Dockumentary” is a wildly entertaining, expertly made look at Ellis and his career. Director Jeffery Radice is an Austinite, as are the cinematographer, editor and a few producers.
Ellis, who died of liver issues in 2008, asserts in the movie that he never played sober and there is no reason to doubt him. Dexamyl, or “greens,” were the drug of choice for, as one player put it, about 96% of major league baseball and Ellis was a huge fan.
He was also a fan of booze, cocaine and virtually anything that was put in front of him and “No No” has a tough time emphasiising his cool without completely celebrating his excess. The music is uniformly excellent, from the original score by Beastie Boy/ 70s sports fetishist Adam “Ad Rock” Horovitz to the brilliant use of Hawkwind’s “Silver Machine” in one trippy sequence.
Ellis cultivated a charismatic, often combative personality, the “Muhammad Ali of baseball” convincing (or letting the media convince) Sparky Anderson to let him start against Vida Blue in the 1971 All-Star Game, the first time two black pitchers started in an All-Star contest. For him, pitching was all about intimidation – once the hitter thinks you’re nuts, you’re life on the mound gets easier. (Ellis once met Ali in the locker rooms and tried to spar a little with him; according to teammates, Ali popped him in the chest such that Ellis folded in half. You come at The Champ, you best not miss.)
When he left the game in 1979, he was a rock bottom, a mean drunk and druggie whose second wife says she beat her for five hours, high and drunk, after getting cut by the Pirates, a beating that sent her to the hospital Another wife also speaks of abuse and it’s too bad we don’t get his perspective on these exceptionally ugly moments, except a locus of his own redemption. (Ellis says he quit drinking and drugs after this incident, checking himself into a long-needed rehab.)
And Ellis did work to redeem himself, becoming drug and alcohol counselor until his death in 2008 and became known for treating inmates with whom he worked with a basic dignity and respect they didn’t forget.
They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore.