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WITH “NOTHING COMPARES,” DIRECTOR KATHRYN FERGUSON SHOWS US WHY SINÉAD O’CONNOR WAS RIGHT ALL ALONG

<em>Sinéad OConnor Courtesy of SHOWTIME<em>

Nothing Compares, Kathryn Ferguson’s new documentary that reexamines the life and career of disgraced alt-pop superstar Sinéad O’Connor, opens in familiar territory. It’s the evening of October 16th, 1992, and Madison Square Garden is a packed house. Fans have filled every seat in the New York City landmark arena for Bob Dylan’s 30th Anniversary Concert Celebration, a tribute show where a prestigious lineup of musicians are slated to cover songs from the trailblazing folk-rocker’s catalog. When Kris Kristofferson announces Sinéad O’Connor as the next performer, the arena explodes into a thundering clash of boos and applause as O’Conner emerges from the wing.

“It was the weirdest, most nauseating sound I’ve ever heard in my life. I thought I was going to throw up,” O’Connor says in a voiceover taken from the interview she gave for the film in 2019. Nothing Compares derives its name from “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the chart-topping and Grammy-nominated single that cemented her as a worldwide musical phenomenon in 1990.

Standing at the microphone, O’Connor stares at the audience, then at the floor. Less than two weeks earlier had been the Saturday Night Live performance in which she sang an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War” before holding up a picture of Pope John Paul II and tearing it to pieces. With no sign of the crowd’s vilifying roars coming to an end, O’Connor signals for her keyboardist to stop playing, turns up her mic, and shouts another rendition of “War” without the band; this time ending her performance after the lines mentioning child abuse.

“I just don’t think the world was ready to hear what she was saying, as it was a very serious truth and a good few years too early for it to come out to the masses,” says Ferguson after a screening at New York’s IFC Center. O’Connor had destroyed the photo in protest of widespread sexual abuse by Catholic priests that the Pope had failed to hold accountable.  “I don’t know if people – even the Saturday Night Live action – if people had the context to understand any of where it was coming from.”

<em>Sinéad OConnor Courtesy of SHOWTIME<em>

O’Connor’s introduction at the Dylan tribute – more specifically, the relentless booing and jeering she was met with – is a right-off-the-bat reminder of how quickly and completely she was exiled from the popular music scene. Ferguson’s film then rewinds the clock back to O’Connor’s upbringing in Dublin, Ireland in an era defined by the stronghold held by the Catholic Church over the country and its politics. O’Connor attributes the physical, verbal, and psychological abuse she withstood from her mother, who was a devout Catholic herself, to the Church’s treatment of Irish women at the time.

“Divorce, contraception, and anything that didn’t agree entirely with a very narrow view of the Catholic Church, it was simply not allowed,” says Friar Brian D’Arcy in Nothing Compares. “If it was a sin, then it was against the law of the state. The church influenced everything.”

Already, the film is direct, uncomfortable, and periodically appalling in its recollection of the Church’s abuses in Ireland alone. It goes on to cover O’Connor’s time at a Magdalene asylum (Catholic institutions that were intended to house “unruly” women before their “traumatic and demanding” conditions were exposed) before her talent is eventually discovered by her music teacher, setting her on the path toward short-lived glory. By the time she becomes a full-blown rock star complete with an acclaimed debut album, 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra, the pain and fury behind O’Connor’s soul-crushing voice and scathing stage presence is clear and palpable. We do see how she got her start, and Ferguson does recount her meteoric rise, but Nothing Compares is just as much a film about the world that built O’Connor into something to be destroyed. As O’Connor notes, she “never wanted to be a pop star, [she] just wanted to scream.”

“What she talked about is what so many women in my country went through,” says Ferguson, who is Irish herself, before emphasizing how much O’Connor meant to her and “all of us Irish women” growing up in the ‘90s. “The key thing with this film was that you heard her. Sinéad is, finally, telling her story uninterrupted.”

As O’Connor continues, the world that Ferguson says wasn’t ready for her kicks back at every turn. When she shaves her head to sidestep the sexist expectations set by her record label, interviewers needle her with demeaning comments. When she suggests she won’t perform at a New Jersey stadium unless they agree not to play the National Anthem before her set, citing the ongoing Persian Gulf War as the reason, she’s told to “shut up and sing,” “take her bald head back to where she came from,” and radio stations blacklist her songs. Yet, her endearingly shy and bubbly demeanor only slips when she’s onstage roaring through a performance.

<em>Sinéad OConnor Courtesy of SHOWTIME<em>

By the time the Saturday Night Live fallout puts the worst of society’s misogyny and willful ignorance on full display, it’s hard not to share Ferguson’s bewilderment at O’Connor’s exclusion from today’s political conversations. The director says the ball really started rolling on Nothing Compares when “the world was on fire” in 2018: “We’d had #MeToo, Weinstein, Trump… Ireland had just had the equal marriage referendum, and we were gearing up for the abortion referendum.” That year also saw the line separating politics and entertainment becoming thinner than ever. Now – as the film highlights with a montage of today’s female pop stars waving pride flags, demanding that the Supreme Court “stop telling me what to do with my own fucking body,” and raising fists in solidarity with Black Lives Matter onstage – entertainers can be put in the hot seat for not addressing societal problems.

Ferguson knows this. She also knows the door-busting role Sinéad O’Connor played in getting us there, and Nothing Compares is her best case for everyone else to know it with her. Even though Ferguson says she didn’t want to make “one of those docs about great female musicians that’s told through a tragic heroine lens and leaves you feeling winded,” the cold, hard hypocrisy it slaps us with makes for a harrowing, thought-provoking roller coaster. As British filmmaker John Maybury recalls at the end, “What are people who are booing Sinéad O’Connor doing at a Bob Dylan concert?”

Nothing Compares is now streaming on SHOWTIME.

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