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In Nothing Compares (Showtime), filmmaker Kathryn Ferguson gets specific about her doc’s subject. Sinead O’Connor’s early forays into singing and performing led to a hit debut, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra, and worldwide success with the 1990 single “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Then she tore up a picture of the pope on SNL, and the world decided it wasn’t really ready for O’Connor’s strident voice and unflinching stance on social justice. But that’s their problem. “They broke my heart and they killed me,” the singer says in Nothing Compares. “But I didn’t die.”
The Gist: In October 1992, Sinead O’Connor appeared on Saturday Night Live. The Irish singer and songwriter performed a bracing a capella version of the Bob Marley song “War,” held up a photo of Pope John Paul II – a photo she’d taken off the wall of her deceased mother – tore it up, stared straight into the camera, and said “Fight the real enemy.” For O’Connor, the action was deeply personal. But it was confrontational, too, and ultimately sparked her public silencing. Nothing Compares focuses on O’Connor’s emergence, her popular rise, and ultimate exile, a stretch of less than ten years. But that focus only amplifies the sound of her voice, unmistakable on record and unavoidable as a rallying cry for noncomformity, feminist identity, and the evolution of marital and reproductive rights.
There are no talking head cutaways here. O’Connor herself is heard in the present, and there are contributions from John Reynolds, her early collaborator and first husband, the musician and producer Peaches, filmmaker and “Nothing Compares 2 U” music video director John Maybury, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and musician and feminist Kathleen Hanna. Their voice overs accompany a wealth of archival footage, from early recording sessions for what would become Lion and the Cobra, with O’Connor’s exhilarating vocal style already fully realized, to television appearances – a shy, polite O’Connor sings on Irish television; a more constrained O’Connor endures inane and patronizing questions about her shaven head from Charlie Rose and others – and ultimately into the charged atmosphere around her increasingly nonconformist statement-making. She describes the music industry as a “vampiric arena.” She observes that there wouldn’t be as much of a fuss over her if she was a man. And she predicts marriage equality in Ireland and the repeal of her home country’s abortion ban, which occurred in 2015 and 2018, respectively.
A postscript in the doc declares that the Prince estate denied use of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which the late artist famously penned. What disagreement or grudge that prohibition is the mark of is unknown. But Nothing Compares still manages to portray the atmosphere around that song and its video with an exploration of O’Connor’s powerful connection to the camera and live audiences. That carries through in more bits of live footage, too, but it’s a moment where she isn’t singing that becomes one of the doc’s most electrifying scenes. As O’Connor takes the stage at Madison Square Garden for an all-star 1992 tribute concert to Bob Dylan – this is taking place just 13 days after her SNL appearance – boos rain down from the sellout crowd and drown out the cheers and applause. It’s a sad commentary on society. But O’Connor, in her contemporary interview, remains defiant. “I didn’t mean to be strong,” she says of the Pope picture aftermath. “Everybody felt it was OK to kick the shit out of me.” But the whole reason she got into music wasn’t for fame or pop glory, but because she wanted to scream. And Nothing Compares is a document of that sound.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of? Nothing Compares shares its illumination of the feminist ideals at work in an artist’s career and her public perception with the recent films Jagged, about Alanis Morissette, the Sheryl Crow documentary Sheryl, and Shania Twain: Not Just a Girl.
Performance Worth Watching: In an interview, Peaches praises Sinead O’Connor’s “incredible intersectional feminist attitude,” and an image that screamed more than feminism, statements proved out by footage and photography dating to the late 1980s and early 90s, where the singer’s chunky Doc Martens, cuffed denim, and startling ease on stage or before the camera lens are a robust reminder that O’Connor was an immediate star in the making.
Memorable Dialogue: “I just knew I didn’t want any man telling me who I could be or what I could be or what I could sound like,” Sinead O’Connor says in a contemporary interview about those early sessions for Lion and the Cobra. “I’d came from a patriarchal country where I’m being told everything I can and can’t do because I’m a girl. I figured if I didn’t take it from the system and I didn’t take it from my daddy, I ain’t takin’ it from anybody else.”
Sex and Skin: Nothing here.
Our Take: Yes, Nothing Compares is a music documentary, the ranks of which have swelled in the years since COVID arrived. But it’s largely and refreshingly devoid of that format’s usual stylistic bullet points. Kathryn Ferguson’s film eschews biographical boilerplate, and instead focuses on Sinead O’Connor’s formative period and explosive commercial and critical breakthrough. When it does reach into O’Connor’s past, like in its representation of her tumultuous upbringing and eventual stay at one of Ireland’s infamous Magdalene asylums, it flickers between dream and memory as voiceover from the singer and others lends structure to the images. And later, a montage set to the haunting I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got standout “I Am Stretched on Your Grave” establishes the cultural froth of the early 1990’s: Space Shuttle missions, Twin Peaks, stilted beauty pageants, the presidency of George H.W. Bush, the obscenity crowing of the PMRC, and the nervy punk energy of early Nirvana. O’Connor’s voice and strident stance would come to be a part of it all.
Will you stream or skip the Sinead O’Connor documentary #NothingCompares on @Showtime? #SIOSI
— Decider (@decider) October 2, 2022
Our Call: STREAM IT. Powerfully told and elliptically crafted, Nothing Compares ably connects Sinead O’Connor’s past and present to one powerful stretch of her nearly 40 years in music and unflinching expression of self.
Johnny Loftus is an independent writer and editor living at large in Chicagoland. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, All Music Guide, Pitchfork Media, and Nicki Swift. Follow him on Twitter: @glennganges
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