It is high time for a re-appraisal of Sinéad O’Connor. Now best remembered with a tinge of distaste for tearing up a picture of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992, the singer is the focus of Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary, NOTHING COMPARES. Centering on O’Connor’s precipitous rise to stardom at barely 21 to the fall from grace a few years later, it provides more than just the context for that act. It presents the artist and activist as a woman, though tormented by her own demons, ahead of her time, and a lightning rod for society’s discomfort with a woman who refused to abide by its cultural norms. As Chuck D puts it at one point, the powers that be just weren’t ready for her. Ferguson succeeds in her mission.
It begins with O’Connor being introduced as a person of courage and honor to Madison Square Garden audience. It’s just after the picture-tearing, and the audience is equally divided between cheering and booing. O’Connor remains cool, almost aloof, as she stares them down. This is formidable presence, and how she became that presence, and the insecurities that fueled it, are revealed as the Ferguson flashes us back to O’Connor’s life before fame. A mother she describes as a beast, and a father who refused to talk about the abuse led to rebellion and a group home where a music teacher may just have saved her life. Certainly, she recognized the astonishing talent of the shy girl in her class and encouraged her to pursue a career in music.
Voice over-narration from the present is intercut with contemporary clips tells the Hollywood-esque story of a teenager coming to the attention of powerful recording industry executives and becoming a star by the age of 21. O’Connor, though, never signed up to be a pop star. The anger born of the institutional misogyny of her Irish homeland, and the hold the all-powerful Catholic Church had on it, made it impossible for her to knuckle under to demands that she become a pop princess, demurely wearing short skirts, curling her hair, and aborting the baby she conceived while working on her first album. Long before she had the clout to assert her artistic vision to the executives controlling her destiny, this waif-like young woman shaved her head, wore non-binary clothing, and screamed her pain at audiences that adored her. And she had her baby.
This is a story of resilience and trauma, told with the sort of raw honesty that O’Connor herself evinced. And there is nothing so arresting as seeing her in clips from that time when she was conquering the world, sometimes shy, sometimes overwhelmed by the circles in which she finds herself traveling, but confident in her opinions about social justice. As she says in narration recorded in the present, the voice a little raspier but just as incisive, she wanted to remain true to herself in a vampiric industry where people were afraid to speak their minds.
She did just that.
By the time we come back to that moment in Madison Square Garden, we know that the picture O’Connor tore up wasn’t a random photo of the Pope, and why her rage at the men running the Church she loved could not be contained. We also learn that she doesn’t regret having done it despite the career hit she took and becoming a punch line for some. When Joe Pesci, who hosted “Saturday Night Live” after the incident, says she’s lucky that he hadn’t been the host because he would have smacked her, drawing laughs from the audience, the perspective of three decades makes it moment whose semantics have changed radically. What happened between the fall from grace and the present is
NOTHING COMPARES stops short of being a hagiography, and it is a better film because of it. No twenty-something has it all figured out. It doesn’t prevent you from coming away with admiration for the woman and the artist who refused to back down. And a little curious about the people managing Prince’s estate who would not allow this incisive documentary to include O’Connor’s recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U”.