Directed by: Kathryn Ferguson
Distributed by: TBA
Written by Maria Athayde
“Nothing Compares” the new documentary by Kathryn Ferguson is a fascinating look into the life of the Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor. Prior to this documentary, I didn’t know much about Sinéad and what I did know was often reduced to internet lists about celebs who’ve been allegedly banned from Saturday Night Live (SNL) like this one. The incident in question happened during Sinéad’s appearance on SNL in 1992 when she performed a cover of Bob Marley’s War and, while looking directly into the camera, proceeded to tear a photo of Pope John Paul II to protest against the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. This performance resulted in widespread condemnation that had a lasting impact on Sinéad’s career. This documentary, however, deconstructs this incident and paints a fuller picture of Sinéad’s upbringing in Ireland, rise to stardom, and treatment by the media. It is especially poignant to revisit this story now as Sinéad deals with an incredibly personal loss.
Mostly told using voice-overs, archival footage, and reenactments Ferguson introduces us to the Sinéad O’Connor story. Sinéad, in her own words, describes her intertwined upbringing with the Catholic Church and its hold over Ireland. As Sinéad describes it the Church influenced everything and affected every level of society. In part, she attributes this relationship between Church and state as the condition in which generations of women in her family grew up. Besides the Church, Sinéad’s childhood was marked by a fractured relationship with her mother who was physically and emotionally abusive. At age 14, Sinéad was placed in a care home and developed a special bond with a guitar teacher which would eventually be the catalyst for her music career.
From this point on the film starts to focus on Sinéad’s road to stardom as she moved to London to focus on her music career as she joined various bands before establishing herself as a solo act. Leaving Ireland was her only shot at success since non-traditional Irish musicians, especially women, did not find much success in the country. For me, this move to London was one of the most fascinating parts of the documentary since it offered an insight into the music industry and the treatment of women in that industry. Sinéad left Ireland in search of more opportunities and success but she was met with familiar roadblocks during her journey. Her record label, for instance, wanted her to be a musical commodity and abide by “normal beauty standards”. In response, Sinéad shaved her head in her now-iconic look. Her record label also suggested that Sinéad should terminate her pregnancy so she could focus on her album. However, Sinéad stood steadfast and had her baby.
By 1985, Sinéad was making her own living and her profile would continue to rise. This culminated in a performance at the Grammys of her single Mandinka that cemented her place on the global stage. Sinéad O’Connor new status as a music superstar never deterred her from fighting what she believed in. Sinéad was a nonconformist. This was evident at many points in the documentary: (1) she boycotted the Grammys, which she argued were motivated by greed and censored Black artists, (2) refused to perform at a concert if the U.S. national anthem was played because she was against the Gulf War, (3) her performance on SNL. These are just a few examples of how Sinéad O’Connor “stuck it” to the system throughout her career.
This documentary paints a phenomenal and complex portrait of an artist and human being that is even more relevant now as we start examining how the media treats female artists. It is essential that we have these conversations and this documentary mostly does a good job of getting its message across. My one reservation however is that the documentary relies heavily on archival footage with little narration to contextualize some of the current events that happened during Sinéad’s rise to stardom. For those who aren’t history buffs or adept to current events, you might find yourself a bit lost but Ferguson tries to make up for this by having Sinéad offer her own commentary on what was going on, in her head, at the time.
The documentary ends on somewhat of a sour note with an end card that reads “The Prince Estate denied use of Sinéad’s recording of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ in this film”. Except for a few cords, the song that gives the film its title is not featured in the documentary. I cannot speculate why Sinéad’s recording was denied use. Nevertheless, it does not make it any less heartbreaking especially when that end card is intercut with Sinéad’s song Thank You For Hearing Me. And this appears to be the documentary’s take-home message: let’s hear each other before jumping to conclusions.