Few figures in pop history have deserved a public re-evaluation as much as Sinéad O’Connor. In the late 1980s and early 90s, the Irish singer, then at the height of her fame, was particularly valued by the US music industry for her courageous spirit and clarion voice. But then, as quickly as they raised her up, they pulled her down after she tore up a picture of the pope during a performance on Saturday Night Live, in protest at the Catholic church’s cover-ups of sexual abuse. Suddenly, she was treated as a laughing stock, a recurring punchline for cruel jokes. For much of the mainstream audience she had built up in the US early in her career, she became just a footnote in the annals of pop history.
Nothing Compares, a fiery 2022 documentary by the Irish film-maker Kathryn Ferguson, attempts to correct the record, painting O’Connor not just as a magnet for controversy, but as a ferocious, determined artist and a feminist freedom fighter who provided a mainstream voice for unheard outsiders. It’s a sad coincidence that Nothing Compares aired on Sky Documentaries (and was released on Now TV) just a few days after O’Connor’s untimely death at 56 last Wednesday. Although the film focuses specifically on 1987-93, roughly the period of O’Connor’s rise and fall in the US, it does a remarkable job of weaving together the musician’s life, art and activism, positioning her appearance on Saturday Night Live and the subsequent fallout not as a one-off stunt but as a considered show of defiance in a life that would be full of such incidents.
Nothing Compares consists largely of archival footage, home videos and recreations of events. Although it features specially recorded interviews with O’Connor, her friends, admirers, old associates, and musicians including Chuck D and Peaches, they appear only as overlaid audio; there are no talking heads here. This gives an energised frisson to the scenes from O’Connor’s career, and a profoundly unsettling fog when the film delves into her abusive childhood, which included 18 months spent at a training centre that was previously one of Dublin’s notorious church-affiliated Magdalene laundries.
Although O’Connor was something of a wallflower – evidenced here by excerpts from late-night TV shows in which she barely makes eye contact with the host or audience – she was always confident in what she said publicly. Ferguson smartly zeroes in on close shots of O’Connor’s ever-placid countenance, which never flickers whether she is tackling the repressive Ireland of her youth or her oft-discussed decision to keep her hair shorn. It is striking to see footage of O’Connor in her early 20s, dressed as a choir girl, attaining pop stardom in a way that, as Peaches says at one point, was “non-binary, intersectional, beyond feminist”, decades before other singers began doing the same.
Although Nothing Compares follows the same beats of numerous other music documentaries – troubled upbringing, meteoric rise, devastating fall – it feels unlike them, simply because O’Connor never participated in music-industry pageantry in the same way as other musicians. During her first Grammys performance, in 1989, she appeared with Public Enemy’s logo painted on her head, in protest at the awards’ disregard of hip-hop. The following year, she faced the kind of controversy that would have defined any other artist’s career, after refusing to let the New Jersey Garden State Centre play the US national anthem before a concert. It is focus points such as these that make it galling when, two-thirds of the way through the film, O’Connor’s former manager, Claire Lewis, compares the singer to Billie Eilish or Amy Winehouse. Until this point, the documentary has been at pains to prove how distinct O’Connor was from any artists before or after.
Ferguson devotes comparatively little time to the final moments of O’Connor’s US stardom. This is the period when the singer called on artists to boycott the Grammys, in protest at the music industry’s greed, and recorded an album of jazz standards that featured liner notes in which she wrote about addiction and sexual abuse. The film’s portrayal of this portion of O’Connor’s career is shot through with dread and tension, and it culminates in the footage of the singer on live television, dressed in white and performing an a capella version of Bob Marley’s War, tearing up a photograph of Pope John Paul II. Ferguson, to her credit, makes it clear that the moment was a victory for O’Connor – even if the singer’s team saw it as ruinous. “My blood [ran] cold,” says her publicist at the time. “I said: ‘I can’t get you out of this.’ And she said: ‘I don’t want you to.’”
Elsewhere, in a post-show interview in which O’Connor is asked if she is worried about what the performance will do to her career, she merely grins. It’s details such as this that are key to Nothing Compares: it portrays her as a born rebel who uses her incomparable talent as a Trojan horse to allow her to worm her way into the cultural mainstream. Ferguson treats her subject with profound empathy, and never capitulates to the idea of O’Connor as a pariah or victim. Instead, the film prioritises the view O’Connor had of herself – someone simply speaking her truth, determined to speak up for victims on a global stage. Although the film wasn’t intended as one, it’s a worthy memorial to a fearless, bright-burning life.
Nothing Compares aired on Sky Documentaries and is available on NOW TV. In Australia it is available on SBS on Demand.
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