Friday, January 24, 2014

Sundance ’14: No No: a Dockumentary

For most baseball fans, Dock Ellis is best known as the man who won the 1976 AL Comeback Player of the Year and helped pitch the New York Yankees into that year’s World Series. It is a perfect example of how a great team can rejuvenate veteran players. There are also those remember him for throwing a no-hitter while under the influence of LSD. Jeffrey Radice profiles Ellis’s colorful career and meaningful post-baseball life in No No: a Dockumentary, which screens during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.

Radice openly evokes Superfly and other blaxploitation films when chronicling Ellis’s early seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Ellis liked to dress sharp, but he was not inclined to take guff off anyone.  However, he was far less confident beneath his bluster, which is why he regularly took some narcotic courage before starting a game.

While our Yankee chauvinism might sound like an exaggerated put-on, the late Ellis might not have objected. While he was happy to notch the no-no career milestone, many of Dockumentary’s talking heads suggest Ellis was uncomfortable with all the sophomoric jokey attention focused on the LSD part of the story.  After all, some of the most compelling sequences follow Ellis’s drug-fueled implosion and his subsequent comeback as an addiction counselor.

Radice talks to a number of Ellis’s former teammates, family members, and ex-wives, compiling a pretty thorough composite of his subject.  He maintains a brisk pace, while Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz’s score and the funky licensed tracks evoke the 1970’s vibe quite distinctively. Ellis’s story also raises several topical issues, such as drug use, domestic abuse, and the state of post-Jackie Robinson racial relations in Major League Baseball.  Radice gives them all their proper due, but never strays too far from the baselines.  Frankly, he gets the mix of social relevancy and retro attitude just right.  Highly watchable, No No: a Dockumentary is recommended for audiences beyond the obvious ESPN market. It screens again in Park City today (1/24) and tomorrow (1/25) as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.