“It was such a shock to become a pop star. It’s not what I wanted. I just wanted to scream,” says Sinéad O’Connor in “Nothing Compares,” a compelling film about her life and career. Directed by Belfast-born Kathryn Ferguson, this unique music documentary strays far from bullet-pointed hagiography, instead digging deep into O’Connor’s childhood trauma and how it mirrors Ireland’s fraught past.
Eschewing talking head interviews in favor of simple voiceover, Ferguson fills out the visuals with a tightly edited collage of archival footage from the era, which punctuates the more expected music videos and concert footage. What emerges is a more ephemeral portrait of the time and place that O’Connor sprang from and was rebelling against.
The film is executive produced by Charlotte Cook and Field of Vision, known for politically charged non-fiction films with cinematic aims, such as “American Factory” and “Strong Island.” It’s no surprise that a radical figure like Sinéad O’Connor could inspire Field of Vision’s first music documentary, and the subject holds up. “Nothing Compares” is a bold re-examination of O’Connor’s all-too-brief window of wider influence, and a searing critique of the sexist and conservative backlash that led to her retreat from public life. Like its steadfast subject, it has a clearly articulated point of view, which is ultimately what makes it worthwhile.
Present day O’Connor does not appear in the film until a performance at its finale (she has continued making albums and touring despite her exile from the mainstream), but she is a constant presence in voiceover through a current interview. Her reflections don’t always correspond to the images onscreen, nor do they provide a deliberate timeline like a traditional narration. Never one to be classifiable, O’Connor leaves much unsaid while remaining painfully forthcoming.
Ever the songwriter, she shares the heartbreaks of her life with an affecting rawness and abstract lyricism. “I saw it as a chess game,” she says of her meteoric rise to international pop stardom. “Could I get from one side of the board to the other and still be true to myself?”
The film focuses on the five years of O’Connor’s biggest influence, beginning with the 1987 release of her debut album “The Lion and the Cobra” and ending with her infamous 1992 appearance on “Saturday Night Live,” during which she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II. It’s hard to believe it was such a relatively short time, but O’Connor’s shadow looms large as a polarizing household name during a particularly politically charged era. Some of the most fascinating footage comes from her talk show appearances, which sees plenty of bumbling male hosts hemming and hawing over her shaved head. But that was the least of O’Connor’s provocations.
Long before it became commonplace for celebrities to express political views, O’Connor knew she had a microphone and used it in many ways. In solidarity with hip hop artists who boycotted the 1989 Grammys because the rap awards were not televised, she performed with the Public Enemy logo painted into her shaved head. After she refused to go onstage if a New Jersey venue played the U.S. national anthem in 1990, it prompted radio blackouts and threats from Frank Sinatra. And of course, there was the “SNL” appearance, which the film plays in full, in which O’Connor sings a pitchy a capella version of Bob Marley’s “WAR.” The first reports of child abuse by the Catholic Church had recently broken, and she ripped up a photo of the pope on which she had written “evil,” announcing: “fight the real enemy.”
The backlash was swift and nearly universal. Appearing at a Bob Dylan concert two weeks later, O’Connor couldn’t perform her planned song over the jeering of the crowd. Introducing O’Connor, Kris Kristofferson calls her a person “who’s name has become synonymous with courage and integrity.” O’Connor’s career never bounced back.
Ferguson concludes the film with images of Ireland repealing its abortion ban in 2018, Parkland activist Emma González, the 2017 Women’s March on Washington, and Pussy Riot. “Wherever there is that righteous anger of a woman now,” says one Irish voice. “Who is making a difference, who is standing up and being courageous, there’s where the little sparks of Sinéad are.”
O’Connor is often asked about her regrets, especially in regards to the “SNL” performance. “I regret that people treated me like shit,” she says. “I never set out to be a pop star. … That was the proudest thing I’ve ever done as an artist.”
“Nothing Compares” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.