A new look at the life and career of the controversial singer shows us mostly what many of us already know but does so effectively
It is impossible, at least for me, to watch a documentary on Sinéad O’Connor and not be impacted knowing that her 17-year-old son has just died by apparent suicide, and she herself, as I write this, is hospitalized after sending suicidal tweets. Naturally, this was not the case when this project was being produced, and, logically speaking, these outside factors should have no bearing on my critical appraisal of this film.
But Sinéad O’Connor didn’t become an international sensation by following the roads of logic. A very in-your-face emotionalism has always been her stock in trade. One can trace her early years, at least as I encountered her in the United States, with three distinct acts. Her first hit music video was initially shocking, debuting O’Connor’s revelatory genderfluid look, but the song, I Want Your (Hands On Me), is far from fiery and abrasive, indeed nothing but catchy and sensual, as a lover’s call should be. Her eternal smash Nothing Compares 2 U remains one of pop music’s rawest, empathetic, most heartbreaking tracks. (Crying in the video didn’t hurt either.) Then there was the moment of righteous rage, ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live.
Director Kathryn Ferguson has decided to cover, in vivid and exciting detail, O’Connor’s miserable upbringing, her overnight success, and her head-on collision with the sensationalist press and a fickle public. And that’s it. While the documentary does thread a recent interview in voiceover, and there is a closing credits tag of a modern performance, Nothing Compares is simply more about the Sinéad you already know.
But a critic’s original sin is to review the movie you want to see, not the movie that exists. To that end, with expectations managed, Nothing Compares is a quite engaging document. In it, one will find remarkable footage of Sinéad, new to London in 1985, in rehearsals with her early band. She appears like a stick of dynamite in these washed-out videos, recorded in a small room with brick walls, her voice cartwheeling in pitch and volume, smiling to her bandmates, finding her footing, and unable to keep still. It’s incredible.
Counterbalancing these moments of joy is the deep dive into her abusive childhood. The cruelty she felt at her mother’s hands, for which Sinéad mostly blames the cycle of violence perpetuated by an Irish society in the grips of the Catholic Church, is represented in artfully re-enacted glimpses, though discussed in vivid detail. A sequence describing the origin of the song Troy explains how young Sinéad was forced to live, day-and-night for an entire summer, in the garden behind her house, with her mother ignoring her cries from a lit window. To this day, she is triggered by the onset of dusk, as it reminds her of another oncoming night where she may not be let back in the house.
One comes away from Nothing Compares fully understanding that this was an artist that really did have nothing to lose. When she acted indelicately in the United States, she wasn’t looking for trouble, this was just a person already so troubled that there was no point in her playing a publicity game.
Some may have forgotten that before her Saturday Night Live moment in 1992, there was a huge scandal after refusing to let the state-funded Garden State Arts Center in New Jersey play a tape of the American national anthem before her show, as was customary. (That facility is now the PNC Bank Arts Center, this is no longer an issue.) It is appalling to see the frothing, reactionary news clips to O’Connor’s simple request that the song not be played. It’s a reminder that pig-headed, posturing tough guys weren’t an invention of the Trump administration. Old interviews with Ireland’s Gay Byrne of the Late, Late Show have much more tact, but are no less condescending.
O’Connor’s call to “fight the real enemy” on SNL is shown in full, and another thing I did not know is that the photo she used was one that once belonged to her mother. Sinéad didn’t do anything that wasn’t rich with meaning.
The incident was soon followed up with an appearance at Bobfest, a concert at Madison Square Garden for Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary as a recording artist, in which she was scheduled to sing I Believe in You. She was met with a barrage of boos and applause, and since I Believe in You is a quiet song she knew she had to pivot. She belted out Bob Marley’s War (as she did on SNL) a cappella, then sobbed in Kris Kristofferson’s arms.
Nothing Compares is essentially bookended by this moment, and presents it as both a triumph and tragic climax. She looked at the abyss and fought back. She didn’t let the bastards get her down (as Kristofferson said quietly on stage) but she did, ultimately, retreat from the public sphere. It remains unclear if this was her choice, or because the press and mainstream society was just done with her. This is something for the next Sinéad O’Connor documentary to investigate.
Nothing Compares is showing at the Sundance film festival and will be released later this year
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.