Having known very little about Sinead O’Conner before viewing this film, what is most apparent is how remarkable her rise to the top truly was. In the space of 97 minutes, Kathryn Ferguson makes an audacious attempt to show how a timid girl from Glenageary can become one of the most popular artists in the world. Ferguson delves deep into how a series of infamous acts shook the emerging neoconservative establishment in America and cemented her retreat from the public sphere. Indeed, the furore and anger which greeted much of her actions stem mostly from her rawness and refusal to back down from her beliefs, but these are characteristics that originate from a difficult childhood.
The film starts with a look into Sinead’s upbringing in a devout catholic family with an alcoholic, abusive mother. Scattered amongst the visual reconstructions of her childhood are voice overs of an interview with Sinead where she blames the violence and subjugation of women perpetuated by Irish society for the cruelty she faced as a young girl. She explains how her song ‘Troy’ is based on the experience of temporarily living in her garden as a form of cruel punishment by her mother. Evidently, she is still living with the trauma of that experience today since she hates the onset of dusk, as it reminds her of another oncoming night alone in the garden.
Through understanding her harsh upbringing and tumultuous rise to adulthood, one comes away from this documentary feeling like nothing could break this girl. Much to my surprise, it wasn’t her infamous Saturday Night Live (SNL) appearance where the reactionary backlash against her began. She refused to let the state-funded Garden Arts Centre in New Jersey play the national anthem before her performance out of protest against the gulf war and police brutality against black people. This sparked huge anger from the neoconservative right in America who forced many radio stations to refuse to play her music and protested at her gigs with American flags.
So by the time it came to Sinead’s performance on SNL, it is fair to say that she had been exposed to how popular culture reacts to artists being true to themselves. As the camera pans towards her, she looks down the lens with resentment in her eyes and delivers an acapella cover of Bob Marley’s ‘War’ whilst ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II. Ferguson decided to show the whole SNL performance in the documentary to which the whole crowd in the cinema gave a standing ovation at the end. It is difficult to sum up the power and emotion of that moment, but it must have taken some amount of bravery for the Irish singer to stand up in front of millions and scorn one of the most enduring institutions in the world. The mass covering up of sexual abuse in the church by the Vatican was just one of the many issues that Sinead was drawing attention to long before it was publicly acknowledged.
Her appearance shortly after, at Bob Dylan’s 30th-anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, was subject to a barrage of boos and applause. After a few seconds of collecting her thoughts, he did a rousing rendition of the same song she did on SNL and walked off stage into the arms of Kris Kristofferson.
The decision to end the documentary at this moment is significant since it is portrayed as both a huge triumph but also a tragic climax for her career. Whilst Sinead would continue to produce critically acclaimed albums and perform sell-out shows, she would never reach the fame and stardom she had in the early 90’s. The documentary doesn’t touch on whether this was a personal decision or a response from the music industry in light of her controversial acts. Nevertheless, Nothing Compares will leave you feeling an even greater sense of appreciation for Sinead O’Conner’s artistry, fighting spirit and determination to speak truth to power.
Press Image Courtesy of SHOWTIME