Following the death of Sinéad O’Connor’s teenage son earlier this month, the debut of the documentary Nothing Compares about the lionhearted singer at the Sundance Film Festival today has a distinctly lugubrious element hanging over it.
However, premiering in the World Cinema Documentary Competition section of the virtual 2022 fete, the Kathryn Ferguson directed offering is a full-throated battle reclamation of one of most compelling and prophetic artists of the past few decades. Or to quote Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna in the documentary on O’Connor’s infamous 1992 child abuse protest fueled ripping up of a photograph of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live: “We were all like applauding and cheering, and we’re like, feminist performance art on TV, when does that ever happen?”
Studded with archival footage, soft focus recreations and interviews with the likes of the singer herself, Hanna, Peaches, and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, the 97-minute Nothing Compares is in many ways a welcome companion piece to O’Connor’s sagacious 2021 memoir Rememberings.
While the latter gives the reader O’Connor’s own POV, the former provides viewers with a media saturated telescope by which to watch an often pained procession. In that context, spanning the years from O’Connor’s debut The Lion and The Cobra album in 1987, the massive success of her adaptation of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” and up to 1993, the film successfully mines the trope of the story you think you know, but you don’t really know.
Tracking larger cultural and political shifts on screen, Ferguson takes us down a hall of mirrors through the sickening abuse O’Connor suffered as a child and the despicable abuse she was subjected to as a female artist daring to speak her mind, and her truth. Subsequently, the fast-paced biopic of sorts also names names and focuses on the abuse that institutions such as the Catholic Church battered on the most vulnerable with near impunity for decades.
Each outrage finds its reflection in the others to greater and lesser degrees, but the horrors themselves are not muted at all. Thankfully, nearly bookended with the roars of displeasure and support that a steely O’Connor received simultaneously at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden mere days after the SNL appearance, Nothing Compares doesn’t seek redemption for its subject all these years later.
Even in this time of great pain and loss for O’Connor and her family, what the film does reveal anew is an artist far more principled, talented and enduring than her critics and many of her contemporaries. A fact brought honestly home at the very end of Nothing Compares in modern day O’Connor’s rendition of her 1994 song “Thank You For Hearing Me.”
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