The recently released “No No: A Dockumentary” uses Dock Ellis’s 1970 no-hitter against the Padres — twirled while the Pirates’ right-hander was soaring on LSD, true lore has it — as a fulcrum. However, the film, as you might expect, is about more than “just” that subversive instant of baseball culture. It’s about a flawed figure, Ellis, whose human weaknesses and neglected importance place him at once in and beyond his times.
The film begins as you’d expect, invoking that fabled and titular no-no. Initially, it’s framed mostly as it’s digested these days, and that’s as something to be fondly recalled and even exalted in its native absurdities. In a vacuum, that’s exactly as it should be, but that no-hitter necessarily occurred within the complex sprawl of Ellis’s life.
And it was a life. “No No” rightly places Ellis alongside — tacitly, at least — Dick Allen, Reggie Jackson and other black rebels of that generation who parted with the more obliging models of the past (obliging for reasons of survival, so don’t mistake the use of that word as a pejorative). That is, they didn’t shy from the black individualism of the times. (Ellis’s fabled use of hair curlers just prior to games is this writ small.) This second generation of black players took the new margins bravely established by the earlier pioneers and pushed them farther still. A less leavened “blackness” — “Black Style,” as Dr. Harry Edwards termed it — was the result, and Ellis is numbered among those who deserve credit for bringing it to baseball in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
None of this is lost on Ellis, who, via interviews, in essence narrates much of “No No.” There’s one sequence in which Ellis, off-camera, reads an approving letter written to him by the luminous Jackie Robinson. When Ellis’s voice, somewhat halting and diffident, speaks and then seems to absorb Robinson’s words for the first time, or at least anew, it’s frankly one of the most arresting sequences I’ve seen on film in some time.
From there, Ellis’s descent into addiction is explored, as is his lamentable history of (alleged) domestic violence. So a hagiography this is not. This is particularly effective, as the opening moments all but set the viewer up for 90 minutes of nudge-nudge grinning over his LSD-addled no-hitter. That’s effective, as those popular perceptions are undermined in calculated fashion.
These explorations of Ellis’s self-immolating drug use also remind us that previous generations of ballplayers, not unlike those of the 1990s and 2000s, in the main used whatever they could do gain an edge. Ellis speaks of trying to “out-milligram” the opposition with Dexamyl, the preferred amphetamine of the day, and Scipio Spinks, one of many interviewees, posits that “everybody’s had help in this game.” Given the narrow scope of value judgments directed toward the current generation of ballplayers, this strikes a small blow against such revisionism.
There is, of course, hard-won redemption in the end for Ellis, as he overcomes his afflictions and carves out a post-baseball life as a drug counselor. Along the way, Ellis, who passed away in 2008 from cirrhosis (as with Mickey Mantle, those past excesses were submerged but not erased), is fondly remembered by many former teammates — among them Steve Blass, whose recollections of Ellis suggest a post-racial openness of mind that surely rose above time and setting. Roberto Clemente looms dominantly, first as deified warrior-poet teammate and then as spectral reproach to what Ellis would allow himself to become. Childhood friends speak movingly about Ellis, as do two of his former wives, who have somehow achieved a measured remove from being exposed to Ellis at his darkest and basest. As they speak now, though, there’s a sense of calm and forgiveness, no doubt helped along by Ellis’s late-life acts of contrition.
This is an important film and a welcome “deep dive” into a complex figure whose life is too often reduced to the surrealities of one afternoon in San Diego. The general narrative arc is familiar enough to anyone who’s consumed biographical treatments of complicated lives, but the winding, forking path to get there reminds us that there’s no scripting his or any other life.
“No No: A Dockumentary” is in theaters now.