Here’s a purely anecdotal example of the oft-traumatizing fervor of Irish Catholics: I’m eight years old, sitting in the backseat of my grandparent’s car with my younger siblings, and we’re scrambling to make noon mass at St. Anne’s Church. Annoyed with the time-crunch and the boring hour-long service ahead of me, I plainly ask: “Pop-pop, why do we even have to go to church?”
I shit you not, my grandpa turned his entire torso around and stared me dead in the eyes while still driving down suburban backstreets, emphatically stating in his County Cavan accent: “Because God can stop your heart at any time he wants!” I cried until the communion wafers were handed out.
If my devoutly Catholic grandfather (RIP Pop-Pop) felt no remorse in bringing his eight-year-old grandaughter to tears for merely questioning the concept of church-going, one can only imagine the toxic vitriol Catholics targeted musician (and staunch Vatican critic) Sinéad O’Connor with throughout her career. Belfast-born documentarian Kathryn Ferguson unpacks the controversies that defined O’Connor in Nothing Compares, which spans the six-year period from 1987 through 1993 during which she rose to international fame. None of these pop culture polemics were more provocative and divisive than her 1992 SNL performance, wherein she ripped up a photograph of then-Pope John Paul II before crying out, “Fight the real enemy!” Essentially, Nothing Compares re-hashes sensationalized (though undeniably iconic) moments in O’Connor’s career—tapping into viewer nostalgia and retroactive abhorrence for the musician’s mistreatment in the media without actually painting a fuller portrait of a clearly nuanced, complicated figure.
Yet present-day O’Connor is far from absent in the film, even if her presence is somewhat disembodied and distant. Ferguson weaves in audio interviews she conducted with the Irish icon, during which she comments upon everything from her childhood abuse and teenage stint in a Magdalene laundry (infamously known for housing “fallen women”) to her acting debut in Hush-a-Bye Baby and her long-time affinity for Rasta culture. Of course, she also comments on the public scrutiny concerning her physical appearance and activism—but in hearing O’Connor recount these lesser-known facets of her career, viewers (even those who were already fans of the pop star) glean greater insight into memories from this era that are not singularly steeped in backlash. These re-tellings are illustrated by archival interviews, photos, performances and news footage, with the occasional added interviewee chiming in on the musician’s influence (including Kathleen Hannah and Peaches). However, there’s still somewhat of a disconnect between the film’s ultimate objective and O’Connor’s ostensible autonomy. For an artist so dedicated to maintaining her gender non-conforming appearance and who continues to perform and make music, it feels oddly reductive to solely fixate on this period of rabid media frenzy. It feels safe to say that many have already retroactively reflected upon these clearly misogynistic reactions to O’Connor’s activism and thought, “Wow, yeah, that was fucked up.” Meanwhile, the person and musician O’Connor has grown into in the past 25 years is only acknowledged in a brief filmed performance before the credits roll.
Of course, expanding on O’Connor’s narrative would also mean confronting the many other controversies that have continued to surround her—instances which would feel distasteful to bring up now considering the very real grief O’Connor is currently experiencing over the loss of her son—that surely could have been handled by the director in a respectful and lucid manner. Perhaps the fact that Ferguson first collaborated with O’Connor while directing the music video for her 2013 single “4th and Vine” has resulted in a working relationship far too friendly (and steeped in Ferguson’s own self-professed love of O’Connor’s work) to bring up memories much more recent and painful. It’s possible that setting the film in the distant past finally allows the artist to fully confront the unfairness of her treatment and begin to heal from the experience—however, the eternally outspoken and candid O’Connor has never missed a beat when it comes to defending herself from detractors, so it’s hard to say.
Another minor sticking point is that though the film is titled Nothing Compares in reference to her hit song “Nothing Compares 2 U,” Prince’s estate actually denied the use of O’Connor’s recording in the film—as the late-writer of the song still technically owns the rights. It’s completely understandable that these snafus often inhibit music documentaries, but once again, there was absolutely an opportunity to delve into the complicated encounter the two artists had after the song’s success, which O’Connor recently detailed in her 2021 memoir Rememberings.
If there’s one major misstep the film makes, it’s the ham-fisted assertion that contemporary pop stars have even a shred of the moral fiber and rebellious fortitude that O’Connor had during the height of her popularity. I’m sorry, but if Ariana Grande belting while holding up a pride flag is now considered the same kind of political activism as O’Connor boycotting the Grammys with Public Enemy, it’s resoundingly clear that true social justice leanings in pop music are virtually non-existent. What remains so compelling about O’Connor is that she actually used her popularity to challenge powerful institutions well before anyone else was even remotely comfortable with doing do, in tangible ways that truly said “fuck you” to the pope, the Grammys and even her own audience—while knowing it would jeopardized her career. Though that level of commitment to the cause is certainly rare among the famous (or aspiring famous), it would be cool as hell if Nothing Compares inspired even just one up-and-coming artist to stick it to the man the way Sinéad O’Connor did.
Director: Kathryn Ferguson
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste, Blood Knife and Filmmaker magazines, among others. Find her on Twitter.