Early on in the absorbing new documentary Nothing Compares, the film’s subject Sinéad O’Connor, recorded in a recent interview, is heard saying, “I didn’t want to be a pop star. I just wanted to scream.” It’s probably just as well, since her brand of brutal, often divisive honesty led to an exile from the mainstream almost as quickly as the unlikely A-list pop star arrived.
Many young women of the late 80s saw the singer songwriter as the representation of righteous anger and grrrrrl power, and they found 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra transformative. Still, even some of her most devoted fans didn’t know her challenging past, or complicated history of abuse and neglect.
In this cinematic and visually inventive film, Belfast director Kathryn Ferguson uses a feminist lens to shine a brighter light on the singer/songwriter, with a focus on the early part of her career between 1987 and 1993, a time that highlights her meteoric rise and subsequent boot from the top for being a woman who spoke too loudly and too honestly. Ferguson blends footage and images from the time, and interviews from O’Connor, those she knew, and those she inspired, but avoids the use of talking heads in favor of creative editing. She reveals O’Connor as an insightful, emotionally damaged artist with unshakeable integrity, a firebrand that caused controversy even as she was speaking truth and changing the future of pop music for the women that would come after her.
Through voiceover, Sinéad O’Connor accompanies viewers through the entirety of Ferguson’s film, revealing insights from her present-day perspective. First, there was the violent childhood highlighted by a mother’s neglect and abuse, which included being forced to live outside in their garden for weeks at a time. “My mother was a beast, and I was able to soothe her with my voice,” explains O’Connor. As a 14 year old ‘problem child’, she was sent to Our Lady Charity Laundry in Dublin, a workhouse that was a part of the notorious Magdalene Laundries. There she and the other girls cried daily and were constantly being told they were terrible. Dying women who had been there for 50 or 60 years lived on the top floor, and she was routinely sent to sleep with them as punishment. Those experiences would haunt O’Connor the rest of her life, becoming demons she would seek to exorcise through her songs and performances.
So much happened behind the scenes as her first record The Lion and the Cobra, destined to become a classic, was being made and promoted. At the time, she was living through the late stages of her first pregnancy and learning to be a new mother. The men running her then-label tried to convince her to end the pregnancy, and she refused. Americans will remember the cover of the album as an image of a demure Sinéad, arms crossed, looking down. That was a watered-down version of the UK cover, which featured a far more provocative image of her, open-mouthed in a scream. The UK cover makes so much more sense. Those in the male dominated and misogynistic music business she navigated failed in their many attempts at controlling her, and her music was always the better for it.
Those famous scrapes with Prince are mentioned, and in the end credits it is revealed his estate denied the use of the song Nothing Compares to U for the film. Of course Ferguson covers the moment of activism that got her into the most trouble. In addition to the SNL appearance when the singer famously ripped up a picture of the Pope John Paul II, she shows footage of O’Connor at Madison Square Garden two weeks later, being booed and cheered in equal measure. O’Connor’s statement about the pope proved prescient about subsequent revelations of child sexual abuse from inside the church, but signaled the end of a major part of her career.
O’Connor always seemed like a walking contradiction; she was shy in interviews, but wailed and screamed onstage. Her androgyny was different than other famous women of the time, like Annie Lennox. It had an anger, an F-U vibe that resonated with more than just disaffected Catholic girls. All kinds of people found her magnetic, but only her most diehard fans stuck with her when the public turned on her. After a lifetime of living as an artist and musician beyond those first few years in the music business, O’Connor still fights her demons through song, though to a far smaller audience. Speaking of her experience, O’Connor paraphrases Greek poet Dino Christianopoulos’s 1978 couplet; “They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.” She was indeed a seed that sprouted countless women in rock after her, including Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna, who was interviewed for the film. She pegs O’Connor perfectly, a musician that, to this day, can say one thing on Twitter, only to correct herself, apologize for it, and delete it the next day. “She’s not a martyr. She’s a three-dimensional human being. She makes mistakes. She’s a weirdo. She’s great. She’s a lot of different things. She did not deserve what she got.” At least she got the documentary she deserves.
5 out of 5 stars.