I knew that Dock Ellis pitched a no hitter while tripping on acid. Even as a guy who has maybe watched three baseball games in his whole life (total, adding all the innings I’ve suffered through together) I knew this about Dock Ellis. It’s one of those great 70s stories. But that was all I knew about Dock Ellis until No No: A Dockumentary opened my eyes to a truly astonishing figure in American history.
Yeah, Dock Ellis pitched a no hitter on acid, but he also was a loud, angry black man in Major League Baseball at a time when loud, angry black men weren’t very welcome (by which I mean the entire history of sports, up to and including Richard Sherman). Dock was a natural born anti-authoritarian, and he relished every opportunity he had to rile up the old white men in charge of baseball. He picked fights with management, he wore curlers in his hair and he adroitly manipulated public perception to force a history-making All-Star Game featuring two black pitchers.
No No presents Dock as a fairly talented guy whose mouth was maybe a bit bigger than his abilities, but that makes me love him more. He’s a figure of grand bravado, a guy who through the sheer power of his will and swagger pushed himself forward during a time when everything in Major League Baseball was changing around him. He was also an epic party monster, and that eventually haunted him as he descended into serious addiction and violence against women.
But Dock cleaned up and spent his final years as a drug counselor. If there’s anyplace that No No stumbles it’s here; the film until then had been a whirlwind of fun, using small animated tidbits and the sort of laughing recollections people have of hellraisers whose hellraising is far behind them, but when Dock cleans up the movie becomes almost somber, and definitely much duller. It seems like Dock continued his rule-breaking ways as a counselor, so there’s no reason No No couldn’t have broken the usual documentary rules and made this section just as invigorating as his time on speed, acid and booze. Judging by interview clips with a sober Dock it doesn't seem like kicking the chemicals made him any less of a firebrand. And it definitely didn't reduce his emotions - Dock slowly dissolving into tears as he reads a letter written to him by Jackie Robinson left me crying as well.
No No is a fascinating look at the extraordinary life of a man who wouldn’t be hemmed in by anybody else, but in the end it’s hemmed in by its form.