“I had the acid in me” is how legendary Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Dock Ellis described his state of mind when he pitched a no-hitter – the title’s “no no” – in a 1970 game against the Padres. (That historic trip on the mound was previously chronicled by animator James Blagden in a funny, psychedelic short that went viral in 2009.) Then again, by his own estimation, Ellis was high for every game he ever played in the Major League. Greenies, bennies, rivers of vodka, and LSD tabs crushed and snorted: It was all part of Ellis’ ongoing self-medication, though, as the film underlines, he was hardly the only player relying on performance-enhancing drugs (plus ça change ...).
While the sheer absurdity of Ellis’ against-all-odds no-hitter is handled playfully here, alcohol and drug abuse become necessary talking points, especially as Ellis’ addictions affected his first two marriages and inspired a post-MLB second act as a substance-abuse counselor. (He passed away in 2008 from liver disease.) No No: A Dockumentary – directed by Austinite Jeffrey Radice with a largely local crew (including producer Mike Blizzard, D.P. John Fiege, and editor Sam Wainwright Douglas) – offers the best kind of bait-and-switch: Sure, you may come for the LSD antics, but you’ll want to stay for the film’s riveting lens on seismic changes in baseball and American culture at large, as told through revealing interviews with Ellis’ family, friends, and former teammates, archival photos and video footage, and auxiliary animation.
The film provides invaluable context in its detailing of institutional racism in the Sixties and Seventies (when Ellis first joined up, he and other players of color, like his first roommate, Roberto Clemente, were lodged in different hotels than their white teammates) and in its emphasis on Ellis as an advocate for equality and as a righteous shit-stirrer. When Ellis’ voice breaks as he reads aloud a letter of support from another trailblazer, Jackie Robinson, you can bet the audience will be leaking tears right alongside him.
This review is slightly revised from its initial publication as part of our coverage of the 2014 South by Southwest Film Festival. For more on the film, see “A Wild Pitch of a Life,” Sept. 5.