Amid today’s stan culture, there’s too often a lack of curiosity when it comes to understanding the context around a pop culture phenomenon. Some artists are “canceled” without having the full information around their alleged offense, while others are propped up with little regard for their offenses.
It wasn’t much different years ago. For Sinéad O’Connor, the singer-songwriter who became an icon in the early ’90s, it was a relentless pile-on by media, celebrities and “fans” alike after she had the audacity to criticize the Catholic church and Pope John Paul II on live television.
Some context that people dangerously disregarded at the time was that the church had been enabling and perpetuating the abuse of children across the world, including in O’Connor’s native Ireland. Also: O’Connor herself was a victim.
And as she puts it so matter-of-factly in the stirring new documentary on her life and career, “Nothing Compares,” so was her mother “and her mother and her mother and her mother.” The cycle had thus far been endless.
But many chose to look the other way and bolster a narrative that O’Connor was a traitor to her country, a “she-devil” and a “crazy woman” who was effectively trying to sabotage her own career, one that had catapulted her into the mainstream with the song “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
In other words, she was a woman way ahead of her time who stepped out of line and defied one of the most powerful and cherished male figures in history. And she paid a heavy price for it.
But she did so unapologetically, and as a culmination of many other acts of religious, social and political defiance in efforts to free herself, and many other women, from a patriarchal system.
Kathryn Ferguson, director of the film premiering on Showtime Friday, compellingly pieces together this and other context from O’Connor’s complex and at times devastating story. As a result, she recontextualizes the person who was ultimately condemned for the same thing she had previously been celebrated for: her impassioned rebellion.
For the filmmaker, a Belfast native and self-proclaimed “bonafide Sinéad fan,” O’Connor burst onto the scene at the time when young women and girls throughout the country like her needed her most.
In essence, the Catholic church held a lot of power and, as Ferguson described it during a video call with HuffPost, “women were still being treated like second-class citizens.”
“To have somebody like Sinéad seemingly arrive from outer space,” Ferguson continued, “was such a tonic. I think as women, we just really needed her and we needed her right then to appear as she did. And she just gave us all somebody to really look up to.”
And that image, as captured in “Nothing Compares,” was O’Connor often in worn-out jeans and her signature shaved head, speaking plainly about who she was and wasn’t in a soft but firm voice.
Onstage and on her albums, though, she belted out lyrics about systems of racial and social oppression and her own troubled childhood.
And this was in the late ’80s through the early ’90s — throughout her first and second albums, “The Lion and the Cobra” and “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got,” when she was between ages 21 and 27 years old from 1987 to 1993. Ferguson, who was only a teenager then, focuses on this tumultuous era in the singer’s life in the film in order to contextualize it in extensive detail.
“She said a lot of the things that we didn’t feel like we could say,” the director said. “As soon as I became a fan, it was so quickly after that in 1992 that she just was treated so terribly for speaking rights. The backlash against her was so profound that it just was very demoralizing.”
“Nothing Compares” doesn’t spend all its roughly 90-minute runtime rehashing the 1992 moment that simultaneously immortalized her and ended her career — ripping up a photo of John Paul II after a performance on “Saturday Night Live.” Rather, it tells the story of O’Connor’s yearslong experiences that led up to that moment.
“So much of what the film’s about [is] the cause and effect,” Ferguson explained. “Why did she do what she did? To be able to look at what she did, we had to go right back to what the origins were in her childhood and in Ireland. So you really get a clear sense of why that happened.”
That’s where “Nothing Compares” really soars. Culling both archival interviews and footage as well as more recent conversations with O’Connor and those who know her best, Ferguson tells the story of a woman who, despite everything, endured.
She navigated the silly and consistent questions from journalists about her shaved head, an image she maintained so that, ironically, she wouldn’t have to answer inane questions about her looks.
O’Connor sang about experiencing abuse by her mother growing up and talks openly about being put in another abusive home with nuns for disobedience. These revelations make you wonder whether her biggest critics bothered to understand this. It should have come as no surprise when she destroyed a picture of the pope.
“Going right back into history and speaking to first-hand witnesses, she was political when she was at school,” Ferguson said. “She was always the one to speak out and speak up. And that just began very young.”
“I think she just had something innately in her that just didn’t like authority,” the filmmaker continued, “didn’t like any sense of bullying or oppression or control.”
She was the same person who later sang for audiences in drag clubs in London. As she recalls in the film, drag culture would have been frowned upon in Ireland.
She was also the woman who stood up against her record label when they asked her to terminate her pregnancy because they thought it would give her a negative image on the cusp of a new album. She said no, and to hell with her album then.
O’Connor used her privilege as a white person to call out the injustice of hip-hop not being recognized at the Grammys. In 1989, when Public Enemy boycotted the event, she had the group’s logo stenciled on her head while she performed onstage, a moment frontman Chuck D reflects on in the film.
Though many were shocked to see this from O’Connor, anyone like Ferguson who had really been paying attention and didn’t just see her as a pop star with a radio hit wouldn’t have batted an eye.
“I know and knew that she’d always stayed in total solidarity,” Ferguson said. “Well with, I say oppression everywhere, but particularly with Black artists. Her song, which I don’t think is as well known as it should be, ‘Black Boys on Mopeds,’ is calling out police brutality in Britain in 1990.”
During that same Grammys performance, O’Connor had also tied a symbol of her son to her pants to celebrate her motherhood. There’s also a clip of her in the documentary when she rightly corrects a male reporter for comparing her situation to the plight of a 15-year-old mother.
O’Connor was a rich, young white adult who had a partner, John Reynolds. As she said, that’s not the same as a teenager with no resources and support.
All this said, “Nothing Compares” does a superb job of filling in some of the lost context around O’Connor that any longtime fan can appreciate. Additionally, Ferguson intentionally only using interviews on voiceover, including with O’Connor, helps put the focus back where it always should have been: O’Connor’s words.
“We wanted you just to hear what she’s saying as somebody that, it has felt like, [has] been so censored in a way,” Ferguson said. “We needed her to be able to project her version of events out through the film.”
As comprehensive as “Nothing Compares” is, though, it’s what’s not included that might also strike viewers. Chiefly, the omission of “Nothing Compares 2 U.” Use of the 1990 song was denied by the estate of Prince, who wrote it.
But the truncated version of the song name is still referenced in the documentary title, which Ferguson said had always been the plan since before she heard the licensing decision in 2018. What is part of the film is the breathtaking footage of the music video, which is still regarded as one of the best of all time.
“We were disappointed during the editing process to find out that the license had been denied for the song, which of course we had really wanted to be in the film,” Ferguson said. “It’s obviously a hugely important part of the story.”
Not only is it O’Connor’s most recognizable song, one that inevitably exposed her voice to people who were more inclined to dull anything that came before it, its lyrics highlight her complicated feelings about her late mother:
All the flowers that you planted mama / In the backyard / All died when you went away / I know that living with you baby was sometimes hard / But I’m willing to give it another try
“So much of [the film’s narrative] was about Sinéad and the relationship with her mother and why that had been a reason behind a lot of what she goes on to do,” Ferguson said. “So, that section of the film had to stay in.”
Needless to say, it became a challenge for the filmmaking team to maintain the essence of the narrative without having clearance for the music.
And for what it’s worth, the sentiment is still prominent in “Nothing Compares.” “It is what it is,” Ferguson added. “It was their prerogative and we did our best to make it work.”
But it does make you wonder why clearance was denied. O’Connor first revealed in 2013 that she and Prince “detested” each other. Her memoir, released just last year, also alleges that the late musician assaulted her at his home.
So, to say the details around “Nothing Compares 2 U” were, and perhaps remain, complicated is an understatement. It’s also another example, though, of O’Connor’s relationship with her own success. Her biggest song is the same one that was written by a man she said was violent toward her.
And throughout “Nothing Compares,” she expresses to certain journalists that she’d gladly give back the money she earned, because she didn’t become an artist to achieve fame or fortune. It’s also hard not to link this feeling with the fact that one act of unapologetic rage on live television is also what imploded her career.
What’s also easy to forget is the fact that O’Connor was quite young and clearly working through trauma at the time of the intense backlash leading up to and following her appearance on “Saturday Night Live.” And while she said and did a lot of admirable things, some that clearly baffled many, not everything she uttered showed her in the best light.
For instance, if you peruse the Internet long enough, you’ll come across a bewildering 1992 interview O’Connor did with Rolling Stone, weeks after her “Saturday Night Live” performance, in which she expresses sympathy for Mike Tyson because he, too, was an abused child. She even called the woman he raped “a bitch.”
“I don’t care if he raped her; he should learn about himself and why it is he behaves like that, et cetera, et cetera,” O’Connor states in the interview. “But equally she should look at herself and look at the disgrace that she is making of women.”
Similar to O’Connor’s legacy, her message here was conflated in the worst way possible. Self-sabotaging even, exactly the way the media had always perceived her.
Truthfully, it would be interesting to hear O’Connor reflect on that statement today at 55 years old. The limitations of a film like “Nothing Compares” — not to take away from Ferguson’s impressive work here, especially for her feature debut — are that it doesn’t always feel like it’s presenting its subject as the complicated person she was and is.
But it does keep true to Ferguson’s intention to center O’Connor and only use audio interviews, which precludes print media like the one in Rolling Stone.
“It felt like the media had done such a sterling job of being incredibly reductive of her voice,” Ferguson said of her decision to keep the camera off in her new interviews featured in the film. “So, for us, it was so important to be able to bring the voice out as the key thing that you hear and the key protagonist.”
What “Nothing Compares” hopefully does is start a conversation about O’Connor that should have happened decades ago, one that is as rich and complex as the person.
“Sinéad’s story is amazingly dense and colorful and there’s so much in her life that there could be 10 documentaries about her,” Ferguson said. “And I hope to God there will be one day.”
“Nothing Compares” premieres on Showtime Friday.