Documentary Review: The Irish Artist as Agitator, Sinead O’Connor — “Nothing Compares”

The pop star of the moment stood on a quiet, dimly-lit stage behind lit candles and performed a Bob Marley song, “War,” a cappella. When it was ending, she held up a photo of Pope John Paul. She tore it up, saying “Fight the REAL enemy.” And America, for not the first and certainly not the last time, lost its ever-loving mind.

That infamous piece of “Saturday Night Live” lore — Oct. 3, 1992 — is a centerpiece moment of “Nothing Compares,” Kathryn Ferguson’s bracing, eye-opening, straight-no-chaser documentary appreciation of Sinéad O’Connor. That night is revisited, explained and appreciated in ways it could not be back then, when Joe Pesci was threatening to “give her such a smack” and Catholic advocacy groups led protests against her music and went to war with her career.

Her then-publicist, Elaine Schock, recalls going backstage and telling the already-embattled singer “I can’t you out of this.” And she remembers O’Connor smiling, “happy” and defiantly saying “You know what? I don’t want you to.”

“Nothing Compares,” its release on Showtime coinciding with the 30th anniversary of that night, hits the highlights of O’Connor’s rise — the abused childhood, the mentally ill mother, the Irish Catholic Church that figured into so many of her stories (she was put “in care” at a Magdalen laundry orphanage) of oppression and physical abuse.

But the perfect “explanation” for O’Connor’s outspokenness — pre-“SNL” she had been demonized for refusing to allow the American National Anthem from being played at her shows (during the Bush I Gulf War) — comes from the artist herself.

From Daniel Corkery and Sean O’Casey to Brendan Behan, there’s “a tradition of Irish artists being agitators,” O’Connor (she goes by Shuhada Sadaqat since converting to Islam) says now. And she’s right. Think of U2’s activism and Van Morrison’s anti-vax protests. They don’t always have to be “right.” They still feel a need to speak out.

That electrifying moment on “Saturday Night Live” was both the latest outrage from the outspoken Irish singer and her latest electrifying moment. Just a couple of years before, her breakthrough single, a cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” was a minimalist video phenomenon which somehow never overwhelmed a stark, open wound performance of a song that became the world’s biggest hit.

The video’s director John Maybury recalls being shocked at “the connection coming down the camera. It’s not the direction. It’s not the cinematography (he hired a female DP to put O’Connor at ease). It’s entirely her.”

Ferguson interviewed friends, bandmates, an ex-husband, musicians, filmmaker-collaborators, journalists and publicists and O’Connor/Sadaqat herself, always off-camera. Their voices inform the film, the still photos and grainy early performance footage of young Sinéad, who always favored very short hair before impulsively shaving it all off when her first record label leaned on her to have an abortion when she and her beau got pregnant. The film skips past some of the trauma she wrote about in her memoir “Rememberings,” and revealed to talk show hostesses like Oprah. The idea seems to be to get her to a triumphant finale, in which we appreciate the things she went through to speak and perform her truth.

Fair enough.

There’s a lot of background and a lot of drama in this film, which reminds us of the soft-spoken way O’Connor came off in early interviews, and the confidence to speak out that grew as she grew up. She was world famous at 21, a singular talent with a voice that would range from a whisper to a keening yelp several octaves higher in an instant, a great beauty seemingly at war with her beauty.

Her sound, her look, her fashion sense and her politics are discussed and marveled at by those interviewed, who see her as a woman decades ahead of her time whom the passage of time has largely validated and exonerated.

“I don’t think that the powers that be were ready for her,” Chuck D says, admiringly. He remembers her showing up at he first Grammys, which Chuck D and Public Enemy were boycotting, with a Public Enemy logo painted on her head in solidarity.

Irish journalist Roisin Ingle looks at Parkland High School gun control activist X. Gonzalez and her shaved head, and singer Billie Eilish going off on stage demanding that politicians “Leave our bodies ALONE,” and sees “little sparks of Sinead.”

And we all know what happened to the Catholic Church when the ugly secrets started getting out, and what happened to Ireland when it shook off the misogynistic theocracy the model-gorgeous singer from Glenageary first started raising hell about over thirty years ago.

The film takes us all the way back to show us the elements that made her a star and lets us appreciate the principles with which she approached her career, right from the start. But “Nothing Compares” also makes us remember that we almost all laughed at the punchline O’Connor became, at the “Saturday Night Live” jokes at her expense, and that perhaps we even embraced the ginned-up outrage aimed at her way back when.

And if it doesn’t change our mind about her state of mind — that Islamic conversion feels like another straw a sometimes impulsive, often unhappy and unmoored person has grasped — it at least makes us reconsider her rationale, her defiance and her guts.

Rating: unrated, profanity, smoking
Cast: Sinead O’Connor

Credits: Directed by Kathryn Ferguson, scripted by Eleanor Emptage, Kathryn Ferguson and Michael Mallie. A Showtime release (Sept. 30).

Running time: 1:39

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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