“I think it’s funny that the world fell in love with me because of crying and a tear,” Sinéad O’Connor says in a voiceover for the new documentary Nothing Compares. “I went and did a lot of crying and everyone was like, ‘Oh, you crazy bitch.’ But actually wait. Hold on. You fell in love with that tear.” She takes a pause before finishing the thought: “That was a mirror.”
Nothing Compares, which premiered (virtually) Friday night at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, chronicles the career, the controversy, the legacy, the misconception, and, one could argue, the redemption and vindication of Sinéad O’Connor. That crying and that tear refers to the stunning music video for her chart-topping 1990 cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” one of two pillars of her pop culture iconography. The other is… decidedly more controversial, and arguably destroyed her career.
Directed by filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson, the documentary contextualizes the abuse the Irish singer suffered as a child, how that affected her as she pursued art and music, and the way that pain was unleashed on the public stage as she dressed her pop stardom up with provocative activism. It’s largely centered on the years between 1987 and 1993, when the nonconformist artist dazzled a changing industry with her vocals–capable of a lullaby lilt and banshee wail with equal prowess–and her defiant image as a young girl from Dublin with a shaved head and rebellious confidence.
That confidence carried over to her messaging, a relentless adherence to speaking out against injustice with fiery public statements and attention-grabbing stunts. The most infamous of these, tearing up a photo of the Pope in protest of the Catholic Church’s silencing of abuse victims during a 1992 Saturday Night Live performance, is the climax of the documentary—and, here, it’s being revisited through modern eyes.
At the height of O’Connor’s popularity, few other artists managed to capture as much attention for their music—“Nothing Compares 2 U” vaulted her to international-sensation status—or their unflinching politics and values. As with any renegade in the public eye, her brazenness was at the thrilling nexus point of polarization, with the controversy celebrated and criticized in equal measure, until, well, that equilibrium shifted. Drastically.
Nothing Compares is bookended by O’Connor’s appearance at Madison Square Garden two weeks after the SNL firestorm, during which her entrance onstage was met by a deafening, uncomfortable cacophony of supportive applause and infuriated booing. (“The weirdest noise I’ve heard in my fucking life,” O’Connor says in the documentary.) Centered on that period of her career, the film is a portrait of a female artist who spoke her truth, no matter the reaction or consequence. It’s also an indictment of what happened to someone at that time, a woman especially, when they spoke against the status quo and used their voice to disrupt systems—or, frankly, use their voice at all.
“I was always being ‘crazied’ by the media, made out to be crazy,” O’Connor says. “I don’t blame anybody for thinking I was crazy or for hating me for it or whatever, because they didn’t know. It was a crazy idea. This bitch is saying priests are raping children? Jesus Christ. Of course it seemed crazy to them.”
The film is told using archival footage and B-roll to establish a sense of time and place throughout the decades of O’Connor’s life. It also sparingly includes voiceover from people close to her: the music teacher who discovered her talent at the reform school that otherwise traumatized her, her ex-husband with whom she had her first child, friends, managers, and the publicist who booked her for that fateful appearance on SNL.
The key voice, of course, is O’Connor herself, in a new interview in which she reflects on the newsworthy events of her past, how she felt about them then, and how she feels about them now. It’s pivotal context that reframes pop culture controversy through humanity, showing us how the way she was treated affected and continues to affect her.
Whenever there is a documentary made with the participation of the artist who is the subject, there’s the question of what might be the goal behind it. Is it to correct history? To settle old scores? To control the messaging and the discourse about them? Is it to reconsider their legacy and have them seen in a new light? Is it vanity? Or is there something to say?
Nothing Compares reckons with the idea of whether O’Connor, her ideas, and the way she used her platform as a soapbox were before her time. It also, however, suggests that, as a trailblazer who culture might have needed—even as it rejected her—she was right on time, acting in the way she should have at exactly the right moment.
The film is not concerned, necessarily, with whether or not her actions were “right,” justified, or warranted, at least not as much as it is with what happened to her. It targets the way she was vilified, mocked, dismissed as crazy, and, by the same people who championed her when they agreed with her views, disregarded and blacklisted. What did that do to her? More, how should that make us view her now? Is Sinéad O’Connor a martyr?
“I didn’t mean to be strong,” she says. “I wasn’t thinking to myself I must be strong. I didn’t know I was strong. I did suffer through a lot because everybody felt that it was OK to kick the shit out of me. I regret that I was so sad because of it. I regret that I spent so many years lonely and isolated really.”
Especially over the last few years, following documentaries about the likes of Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Janet Jackson, we’ve been reckoning with not just the media’s complicity in the misogyny, exploitation, and derision that played a part in ruining famous women’s personal lives and careers, but our own complicity, as voracious consumers of that media.
Nothing Compares gives crucial context to O’Connor’s painful adolescence and the reasons for her complicated relationship with the Catholic Church. She discusses how her original intention with her art was to use it as a form of therapy but also, in the grand tradition of her creative heroes, to agitate. It was never her goal, she says multiple times, to be a pop star, and she was never comfortable in that mold—nor ever fearful of it being taken away as retribution for her convictions.
The film also spends time focusing on the reaction to her controversial actions, like when Frank Sinatra pledged to “kick her ass” after she refused to perform at a New Jersey venue if it played the national anthem before her set (she was protesting the censorship of Black artists) and especially after the SNL incident, when countless celebrities and pundits didn’t just belittle her and her mental health or destroy her records, but wished actual violence on her. “Maybe if I was a man there wouldn’t be such a fuss about it,” she says about the national anthem scandal. “It’s just not expected of women.”
The documentary underlines O’Connor’s impact on decades of female artists who have been celebrated for being vocal about their beliefs and politics, rather than criticized for it like she was. There are montages of abortion rights and pro-LGBTQ legislation being passed and of the Catholic Church acknowledging the sexual abuse of children—the very causes O’Connor protested—indicating a sort of vindication for her efforts all those years ago. At the same time, it never lets the question dissipate: What was the cost?
It’s somewhat of a shame that the film doesn’t expand on the specific details of how those tumultuous years in her career have reverberated through her complicated, often troubled life in the decades since. She had been public over the years, in a manner that alarmed some, about her suicidal ideation. And it’s a particularly painful, yet perhaps necessary, time to be examining O’Connor’s life and legacy. Just days ago, it was reported that O’Connor had been hospitalized one week after her 17-year-old son was found dead, following a series of tweets she had posted indicating that she might commit suicide in order to be with him. (She has since apologized for those tweets.)
It all casts a haunting shadow on a project meant to honor the work O’Connor has done and the toll it might have taken.
“I regret that people treated me like shit, and I regret that I was so wounded already that that really, really killed me and hurt me,” she says in the film. “They all thought I should be made a mockery of for throwing my career down the drain. I didn’t say I wanted to be a pop star. It didn’t suit me to be a pop star. So I didn’t throw away any fucking career that I wanted. It didn’t change my attitude. I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t regret it. It was the proudest thing I’ve ever done as an artist.”
“They broke my heart and they killed me, but I didn’t die,” she says. “They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.”