New Streaming Documentary Tears Into the Story of Sinéad O’Conner
DIRECTED BY KATHRYN FERGUSON/2022
It’s a bold move not to include Sinéad O’Conner’s monumental number one hit “Nothing Compares 2 U” in the new documentary about Sinéad O’Conner that is entitled “Nothing Compares”. But when the estate of Prince, the song’s writer, says no to its inclusion, then a decision must be made: abandon the project, or persevere? Considering that O’Conner’s story is entirely one of perseverance in the face of adversity, nothing compares to the vitality of telling said story.
Director Kathyrn Ferguson’s new profile of the famously shorn Irish singer with a voice like magic and cutting anger to match made its debut to streaming and On Demand October 2, following a brief theatrical run for awards qualifications. It’s unapologetically an admiration piece, not sparing of the pain and horrors that marred O’Conner’s early life and shaped her as the person we’ve witnessed on the world stage. She is very much a product of her past environments, ever working in defiance of them.
Conservative Catholicism had a good run in Ireland. And by “good run”, I mean centuries and centuries of domineering oppression for many that found themselves questioning or between the cracks of the strict patriarchal religious order. Today, much of that has changed. Nothing Compares ends with a glorified montage of crowded progressive activist rallies in Ireland and celebrations of LGBTQ+ victories, as well as sea-change pro-choice legislation. To hear the film tell it, the defiant musical career of Sinéad O’Connor nudged all of it forward.
Maybe it did…? O’Conner has been nothing if not politically outspoken in her deeds and raw-nerve musical oeuvre. In the popular memory, she had her big moment circa 1990 with “Nothing Compares 2 U” (from her second album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got). Amid that, concurrent with the first U.S. invasion of Iraq, she caused a kerfuffle when she refused to do a concert if the venue played “The Star-Spangled Banner” beforehand. She then caused a bigger kerfuffle when she ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live. Then, she disappeared forever. But that’s not the truth.
The truth, according to this film, is that she was blindsided by pop stardom, a career turn she never anticipated or really wanted. Prior to that, she was just a poor Irish girl traumatized by a childhood of abuse inflicted by her hyper-Catholic mother. That picture of the Pope that she tore up? The film alludes to it being the very same one that her mother had prominently displayed in the house. It was one of two possessions she chose to keep after her mother died. Meanwhile, she had a son at twenty years old, even though her record company wanted her to terminate the pregnancy. One of the first things she says in Nothing Compares is that she chose to sing because she really just wanted to scream.
And scream she could. And would. Even her most disapproving objectors must admit that her voice is hauntingly magical. It’s like the sound of velvet resonating in the back of your mind at night, or something. The Sinéad O’Conner of today (and assorted others) contributes a good bit of narration over the wealth of archival footage but is never seen (and then only singing) until the very end. Her speaking voice of now and her speaking voice of then are two very different things… They’re so different, it has to be her. If the filmmakers were to fake it, they’d never go with something so vastly varied.
As far as these sorts of contained music doc goes, Nothing Compares ranks as “pretty good”. (Perhaps the title is overselling it?) It doesn’t break new ground formally and doesn’t quite indulge in her music the way one might expect. (Most featured songs get talked over around ten seconds in). But it does a fine job of telling O’Conner’s story, and grafting a personal understanding to this life that she never asked for, but got nonetheless- and became caught up in. The absence of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is almost gaslighting right up until a closing graphic explains the situation. Consider yourself spared waiting for the title track that never comes. With the hit out of the way, everything else can hit that much harder.