The Most Beautiful Fraud: No No, A Dockumentary
One of the advantages of making a sports documentary, at least in theory, is that you avoid the pitfall of so many other types of non-fiction film: the lack of footage. If you’re making a movie about a band or a performer, there may be relatively little filmed evidence of them working at their craft; if you’re making a movie about a writer or an artist, there may be none at all. If you’re dealing with events or personalities that occurred in a previous century, film hadn’t even been invented yet.
In a sports documentary, you’re dealing, for the most part, with events that mostly took place in the 20th century or later; with actions that usually took place in full view of millions of people on broadcast television; and with occurrences that were, by their very nature, visually stimulating and exciting. That’s what makes No No: A Dockumentary such a tricky project to pull off – and what makes its best moments somewhat less compelling than they could be. Like its subject, it’s contradictory, difficult, and occasionally brilliant.
Its subject is the former Major League Baseball pitcher Dock Ellis, who played for six different teams from 1968 until 1979. His longest stint – nine years in total – was with the Pittsburgh Pirates, with whom he helped win a World Series in 1971 alongside the likes of Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente. He was by no means an incidental member of that championship team; he was its best pitcher, an All-Star for the National League and its strikeout king. But he’s by far best remembered for something he did the year before that: on June 12 of 1970, as part of a double-header against the San Diego Padres, he threw a no-hitter – while under the influence of multiple doses of LSD.
Throwing a no-hitter is one of the most difficult things to do in any sport. It requires you to be, essentially, flawless; there’s a reason why the highest level of the no-hitter is referred to as a “perfect game”. You must ensure that three times in a row, nine men specifically trained to hit a baseball fail to do so. Accomplishing this feat under any circumstance is so daunting, so nearly impossible, that most pitchers – even some of the best in the history of the game – never even come close to it. The notion of someone doing so under the influence of the world’s most subversive drug, a powerful hallucinogen that turns your brain inside out and makes hash out of your senses, is downright unthinkable.
Herein, of course, lies one of the greatest contradictions of No No: the most famous event in Dock Ellis’ entire baseball career, cannot be seen, even if you’re watching footage of it taking place. It was a struggle that took place entirely inside the melting, swirling caverns of Ellis’ altered mind. The movie cannot show us what happened, even though it was happened right before our eyes; that is the beauty and the terror of it. No one really knew it was happening but Ellis himself (though his girlfriend, a few friends and teammates, and at least one reporter had their suspicions). In a way, this is why Dock Ellis & the LSD No-No, a short animated film by James Blagden produced a few years prior to the full-length feature, was more successful; while the narration was drawn strictly from Ellis’ own recollections during a radio interview, the animation managed to capture a sense of the careening craziness the drug inflicted on him, and how he managed, throughout it all, to pull off one of the most amazing feats in sports history.
There was, naturally, more to Dock Ellis than just tossing a no-hitter while under the influence of psychedelics. The movie concentrates on the man, not the event, and we learn of his rich, storied life – the good (his unrepentantly forceful personality, his will to win, his studied and methodical approach to the art of pitching, his flamboyant extravagance, and his efforts for the cause of civil rights) and the bad (his troubled childhood, his rocky career, his checkered past with women, his often-unstable behavior, and his lifelong battle with drug and alcohol addiction). It is in this last area where an even greater contradiction emerges.
Ellis was plagued by addiction his entire life. He started drinking as a young teenager; he was heavily involved with a number of illegal drugs most of the time he was a major league pitcher; and his substance abuse problems took a heavy toll on his relationships and his career, as well as ultimately costing him his life. While he made a heroic attempt at getting himself straight and reaching out to young people about the dangers of drugs, it can escape no one watching No No that the only reason we’re watching it in the first place is because of drugs. There’s a great tragedy to the fact that he was clearly an out-of-control addict and Major League Baseball did little to nothing to help him, but if they had, he would have been a different person. Throwing a no-hitter while bombed out on acid is the most amazing thing Ellis ever did, and while the cost surely proved too great, no one would have made a documentary about a player who eschewed drugs and alcohol and never managed to carry off this stunning feat. The clean and sober Dock Ellis is a noble, tragic, and incredibly admirable figure, but it’s hard to shake the sensation that he’s also a little corny and dry compared to the flashy, cocky hot dog who routinely caused jaws to drop in his drug days.
Then again, maybe that tension is the point, and certainly it is lost on no one that Ellis is no longer with us for the same reasons we loved him when he was alive. No No exhaustively humanizes Ellis, avoiding the weak racist clichés about ‘naturally gifted athletes’ to portray him as a man immersed in hard work, unserious but intense, dedicated to his craft, and determined to push back against the expectations of others. It is in these moments, such as when we see him break down in tears after reading a letter of praise from Jackie Robinson, that Dock Ellis transcends the defining event of his own life, and that we truly realize how much we’ve lost.