Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Hickory dickory Dock, peep the new score by Ad-Rock

Dock Ellis: The Pre-Curler Years
The late Dock Ellis' primacy as a pitcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates was way before my time, so director Jeffrey Radice's No No: A Dockumentary does a solid job chronicling a transitional period in baseball I was never really aware of, since I'm someone who doesn't pay much attention to baseball outside of whatever gets covered in the news. Now in theaters and on VOD after well-received screenings earlier this year at Sundance and SXSW, No No interviews Ellis' surviving teammates and uses footage of both Ellis in his heyday and an interview with Ellis from towards the end of his life to recall the period when black baseball players like Ellis became the first of their profession to criticize the baseball establishment for its racial slights at the time. The outspoken Ellis' iconoclasm--he got in trouble with the MLB for wearing hair curlers on the field--coincided with the rise of the Black Panthers and the emergence of Soul Train and Shaft in pop culture.

But, of course, the part of Ellis' life in No No that's the most fascinating--even more so than Ellis' activism--to audiences at Sundance or SXSW and anyone who's renting No No on iTunes is the no-hitter Ellis threw while on acid at a 1970 Pirates vs. Padres game. Ellis was the ultimate high-functioning addict, pitching terrifically while whacked out on something, whether it was LSD or Dexamyl, a.k.a. greenies, the stimulant that's still popular among baseball players as a form of medication to get through the most physically demanding aspects of the game.

Pitching on acid for nine straight innings isn't exactly a simple thing to do, as the late Robin Williams detailed during his final HBO stand-up special Weapons of Self Destruction. A clip of Williams' Weapons of Self Destruction bit about Ellis' infamous no-no (that's baseball slang for a no-hitter, by the way) is very briefly featured at the start of No No.

But Ellis' heavy drug use eventually spiraled out of control--due to grief over the 1972 death of his friend and Pirates teammate Roberto Clemente--and it ruined his career and marriages, so after his retirement, he got sober and became a drug counselor. While No No isn't exactly an anti-drug piece--the Radice doc mocks the clumsiest tactics of the anti-drug contingent by frequently cutting away to unintentionally silly footage from Dugout, a poorly acted 1981 educational filmstrip produced by the Kroc Foundation (the charitable group founded by Joan Kroc, wife of '70s and '80s Padres owner Ray Kroc, the McDonald's tycoon) to warn kid athletes against drug use--the doc's tough-minded exploration of the consequences of addiction would have pleased Ellis, who came to view the addicts he helped get clean as an achievement that was more important to him than any of his past feats on the pitcher's mound.

Adam Horovitz is a far better Jewish rapper than 2 Live Jews.
The other part of No No I looked forward to the most before its debut on VOD last week--besides the discussion of the LSD no-hitter--was its original score by Beastie Boys member Adam Horovitz, who made his debut as a film composer when he scored The Truth About Lies, an as-of-yet unreleased Odette Annable indie comedy that was first shot in 2012. Ad-Rock's funky No No score is reminiscent of the Beasties' instrumental interludes during Check Your Head and Ill Communication (which were compiled in the first Beasties album I bought, as well as one of the earliest CDs I bought, 1996's The In Sound from Way Out). It perfectly suits the doc's segments about the brashly attired, politically conscious pitcher's '70s heyday.

The No No score is also the closest we'll ever get to a second Beasties all-instrumental album, because I doubt Ad-Rock and Mike D will continue recording as the Beasties without the late MCA (and I wouldn't blame them). Horovitz's score is used judiciously too: thankfully, there's no score cue during the doc's most emotional moment, when Radice plays archival audio of Ellis tearing up and sobbing while re-reading aloud a letter of support he received from Jackie Robinson, the legend who paved the way for Ellis' accomplishments as both a pitcher and an athlete fighting discrimination.

Outside of the doc, the Horovitz score isn't available anywhere. The closest thing to the score's wordless soulfulness is, of course, the Beasties' first and last album of original instrumentals, 2007's The Mix-Up, particularly the lava lamp swagger of "Off the Grid." To borrow the words of an old Impressions tune featured prominently during No No's appreciation of the 1971 Pirates' predominantly black roster, The Mix-Up is a winner--just like Horovitz's new score and No No: A Dockumentary itself.

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