The Spool / Festivals
Sundance 2022: Nothing Compares examines Sinead O’Connor’s legacy
Kathryn Ferguson presents the fiery singer as bruised and battered, but not unbowed.
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Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares presents the fiery singer as bruised and battered, but not unbowed.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2022 Sundance Festival)

When we talk these days about a celebrity being “cancelled,” it usually means that they were caught saying or doing something stupid, cruel or offensive and, in most cases, the cancellation amounts to little more than laying low for a few weeks before returning to favor with a highly-rated interview or a Netflix special. However, decades before “cancel culture” became part of the lexicon, Sinead O’Connor used her instant celebrity to protest systemic injustice and abuse in increasingly provocative ways, culminating in an act of cultural transgression that is still startling to behold in its sheer audacity and which led to an exile from the pop mainstream. That being said, anyone expecting Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary Nothing Compares to find a chastened O’Connor delivering a long-awaited mea culpa will be sorely disappointed. Not only is she as proud and defiant today as she was back then, one gets the sense that her only regret is that she wasn’t able to do more when she had the chance.

After covering her childhood, a time when physical and emotional abuse at the hands of her mother and the Catholic Church was alleviated only by her love of music and prodigious gifts as a singer, the film concentrates on the period beginning in 1987 when she traveled from Ireland to London. O’Connor signed a recording contract and immediately butted heads with industry honchos who wanted to mold her into a standard-issue pop tart, responding to efforts to pretty up her image by shaving her head and refusing their demands to get an abortion while recording her first album, The Lion and the Cobra. Released in 1987, that album was a Grammy-nominated success, but her followup, 1990’s I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, was a work of pop perfection, fueled by her devastating cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a massive commercial success as well. Alas, not only is there no dish about Prince to be had, his estate forbade the use of the song in the film.

Already outspoken, O’Connor used her newfound celebrity to speak out against injustice in a number of ways, such as refusing to have the National Anthem played before a concert in America to protest artistic censorship, a move that inspired a rebuke from no less a figure than Frank Sinatra. Her anger at the Catholic Church, especially in regards to allegations of sexual abuse against children by priests, led to her most infamous act, in which she appeared as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live in 1992, delivering  a stirring a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” that culminated in her ripping up a photo of the Pope on live television while admonishing viewers to “fight the real enemy.”

Nothing Compares (Sundance)

The reaction to that act, as we are reminded, was instantaneous and almost entirely wrong-headed, ranging from calls to ban her music permanently to Joe Pesci using part of the opening monologue from his subsequent SNL appearance to talk about how he’d like to smack her for what she did. The most embarrassing reaction—the one that kicks off the film—comes about a week after the show when she was roundly booed off the stage at Madison Square Garden, where she was set to perform at—irony of ironies—a Bob Dylan tribute concert. 

Nothing Compares looks back at these events with a combination of archival materials ranging from mesmerizing live performances to cringeworthy talk show appearances. Interviews with friends, fellow musicians and cultural commentators are quick to point out both O’Connor’s enormous impact on subsequent generations of female music performers and the fact that her specific criticisms of the Catholic Church, which were dismissed by many at the time as hysterical rantings, have proven to be horrifyingly prescient. The most significant contributor is O’Connor herself, who looks back on this head-spinning period in a clear and thoughtful manner that suggests that, while her career may have suffered as the result of her actions, she not only has no regrets but has found some measure of peace (needless to say, the film was completed before the recent suicide of her 17-year-old son Shane, her criticism of Ireland’s national health authority for their handling of his case and her subsequent hospitalization).

More than just another typical rock star documentary, Nothing Compares is a challenging work that observes O’Connor’s musical and cultural legacy through social, political and sexual frameworks, and finds it to be just as potent and powerful as it was back in the day. Although her fan base is obviously the immediate target audience for Nothing Compares, those who criticized her back in the day would do well to watch it, in order to get a better understanding of who she is and where she was coming from at the time. My guess is that after watching it, many of those people will come away from it feeling both a new appreciation for O’Connor and no small amount of shame and embarrassment about how they once regarded her.