When filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson was growing up in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s, she says the whole island – the North and the Republic – was in desperate need of transformation.
âThe Troubles were still brewing and the Catholic Church was still very much in power in the South,â she notes. “It was pretty gray and miserable and you just felt like you didn’t have a lot of options and you didn’t have a voice, and abortion was banned everywhere.”
Sundance Review: SinÃ©ad O’Connor Documentary ‘Nothing Compares’
An unexpected voice for the voiceless would emerge in the form of a singer from Dublin with an uncompromising presence – SinÃ©ad O’Connor. She appeared on the scene not just to entertain but to challenge.
âShe then came in like this alien and kicked down the door. And we were all like, ‘Whoa! Hello who is this ? ârecalls Ferguson. “Just everything about her – the music was so phenomenal. Her looks were so bright and her boldness was so exciting. And I just think as a country we needed her. Like, young people really needed from her.
Ferguson’s award-winning new film Nothing compares documents O’Connor’s huge impact not just on Irish culture but on global culture, and the huge backlash she faced for defying norms in the recording industry and in society. The film hit theaters Friday in New York and Los Angeles for an Oscar qualifying run, and will be available to stream for Showtime subscribers next Friday. It will premiere on Showtime’s linear service on Sunday, October 2 and hit theaters in Ireland and the UK on Friday, October 7.
The film’s title alludes to the biggest single of O’Connor’s career – “Nothing Compares 2 U” written by Prince. This song was on his second album, but SinÃ©ad had already become a worldwide phenomenon with his first album, The Lion and the Cobrareleased at the age of 21. It contained music she had written as a teenager.
âA lot of the songs,â the director says, âwere written before she was 17. I think the first two songs were [written] when she was 14. They’re like diary entries, really.
Voices could penetrate ethereal at first, then turn into a howl.
“The voice is so powerful,” Ferguson told Deadline. “And the length of the notes and the fury and ferocity behind the notes was – I had never heard it before… It was like a battle cry or something, such a guttural sound that I couldn’t still haven’t heard from anyone that i can think of, really.
Ferguson considers O’Connor’s voice to be deeply rooted in Irish lore and myth.
âA lot of songs are that cathartic, explosive sound that comes out of her,â she says. âThere was something ancient in there that I definitely recognized, even the banshee; I don’t mean that in a spooky, ghostly way, I mean in a folk Irish way that’s so intertwined with our historyâ¦ It also made me think of ‘Enthusiasm’, a traditional vocal lament for the dead embedded in Gaelic. -Celtic culture.
Perhaps unfortunately for O’Connor, she was also strikingly beautiful, and record industry managers tried to push her into a normative female mold. F-that, O’Connor responded effectively and kept his hair down to a short pile.
âShe rubs shoulders very quickly with the record company who wants her to grow her hair and dress nicely,â Ferguson points out. The film includes several clips of TV interviewers on both sides of the Atlantic (including Charlie Rose in New York) who seem troubled by O’Connor’s decision to go without long hair.
âIt caused such a ruckus for so long and for so many years,â Ferguson notes. âShe just felt taken seriously, she needed to strip almost everything. I don’t even think it’s as important to her as it is to everyone else. I think she was like, I want to shave my head. It was a look she loved.
This “controversy” was nothing compared to what awaited O’Connor when she began to openly condemn the influence of the Catholic Church in Ireland. As the film explores, she had grown up physically and emotionally abused by her mother and attributed her mother’s dysfunction to the distorting effect of Catholic teachings. A priest describes the stifling atmosphere of Ireland at a time when church and state were inextricably linked.
âThe Church has influenced everything. If it was a sin, then it was against state law,â the father said. Brian D’Arcy notes in Nothing compares. “So divorce, contraception and anything that didn’t fully agree with a very narrow view of the Catholic Church, that was just forbidden.”
O’Connor rebelled against this and was not shy about using her platform to speak out against wrongdoing.
“There is a tradition among Irish artists of being agitators and activists – whether playwrights or poets,” O’Connor says in a contemporary interview played as a voice-over in the film. “An artist’s job is to create the difficult conversations that need to happen.”
As everyone at the time will recall, O’Connor was booked as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live on October 3, 1992. She performed an a capella version of Bob Marley’s song “War”, intended to send a message against racism and to highlight the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests. At the end, she pulled out a photo of Pope John Paul II – an image her mother had posted on her wall – tore it to pieces and urged: “Fight the real enemy”.
The provocative gesture sparked an immediate and angry response. The Catholic League attacked her. Someone rented a steamroller to crush their CDs in New York. Context is important. O’Connor’s exposure of pedophilia in the Catholic Church came nearly a decade before the sex abuse scandal burst into public discourse. She was therefore well ahead of her time. Small comfort, given the vitriol she faced.
“You can actually hear audible gasps in the [documentary] audience when you get to this backlash because it feels so violent and so absurd. The ferocity is unbelievable,â says Ferguson. “You just think, what caused such a reaction? Like a 24-year-old girl from Dublin causing such a reaction. Steamrollers in Times Square. I mean, it’s just ridiculous, that’s what what it is.
Even fellow pop star Madonna condemned O’Connor. She faced further recriminations after criticizing the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and on an earlier occasion for refusing to perform at a concert in the US if the event was preceded by the reading of the national anthem. By then, she had all but disappeared as a pop icon. And it suited him.
“They all thought I should be laughed at for ruining my career,” O’Connor says. “I never wanted to be a pop star. It didn’t suit me to be a pop star, so I didn’t waste the fucking career I wantedâ¦ I wasn’t sorry, I didn’t have not regretted.
If O’Connor is looking for justification, she can look to a radically changed Ireland, an Ireland she helped bring into being. Marriage equality became part of the constitution in 2015. In 2018, the Irish public voted overwhelmingly to overturn the abortion ban. That same year, Pope Francis visited Dublin and apologized for what he called “crimes” committed by the Catholic Church in Ireland.
The documentary is part of a reassessment of O’Connor, now 55. She is finally celebrated for her fearlessness which decades ago led to her public repudiation. As singer and feminist activist Kathleen Hanna says in the film, “Sinead O’Connor as an artist forged her own path in a world that just wasn’t ready for her… She didn’t deserve this. that she got.”