Movies

A New Movie About One of Our Most Controversial Pop Stars Shows We’ve Still Got a Lot of Reassessing to Do

A sexist ’90s culture wasn’t ready for an outspoken woman with a shaved head. What about now?

Sinéad O'Connor in Nothing Compares.
Sinéad O’Connor in Nothing Compares. Showtime

Nothing Compares, the empathetic new documentary about Sinéad O’Connor, opens on a public execution. It’s October 16, 1992, where the 25-year-old singer is set to perform at Madison Square Garden as part of a gala celebrating Bob Dylan’s three-decade recording career. O’Connor was to sing “I Believe in You,” from 1979’ Slow Train Coming, a little-loved album from Dylan’s born-again period that nonetheless held special significance for her. (It was the one, she recalls in the movie, that got her “obsessed” with Dylan.) But she never got to deliver that rendition: Boos greeted her arrival, an angry response to her ripping up a photo of Pope John Paul II two weeks earlier on Saturday Night Live while imploring the audience to “fight the real enemy.” Deciding that her hushed arrangement for “I Believe in You” couldn’t work in such a raucous environment, she instead blasted out an a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War”—the same song she performed on SNL—and walked off stage, and into showbiz oblivion.

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So what happened next? One might assume Nothing Compares plans to answer that question, but instead, director Kathryn Ferguson goes back, not just to O’Connor’s childhood and early career but also to the ways the world reacted to an outspoken, shaved-headed young woman in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Recent documentaries and TV series have sought to correct the record on several women who were once public punching bags—Britney Spears, Lorena Bobbitt, Monica Lewinsky, Marcia Clark—exposing the sexism and casual cruelty that ran rampant in the media. O’Connor has largely been absent from reappraisals, but Nothing Compares makes the case for a once-visionary artist treated so distastefully. One film can’t right so many years of wrongs, but Ferguson’s documentary argues persuasively that O’Connor is owed myriad apologies—and that what she was pilloried for back then are the things we think we’re more enlightened about now.

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The Belfast-born Ferguson cuts from that traumatic Madison Square Garden evening to O’Connor’s adolescence in religiously conservative Ireland, weaving together archival footage and recent off-camera interviews with O’Connor, her bandmates, business associates, and friends to give us a sense of her unlikely ascension to global acclaim. Born to a depressive father and a mother she claims sexually and physically abused her—her mom died in an automobile accident when O’Connor was 19—O’Connor was blessed with a miraculous voice capable of remarkable tenderness and lacerating rage, fronting a few bands before releasing her bruisingly vulnerable solo debut, The Lion and the Cobra, in 1987.

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Running about 95 minutes, Nothing Compares doesn’t spend much time on Classic Albums-style deep dives into how this guitar riff came together or what inspired that ballad, preferring an emotional snapshot to a traditional rock-doc portrait. Ferguson briskly chronicles O’Connor’s first two must-own records, including the astonishing follow-up I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, which came out three years later.

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Longtime fans will relish hearing a snippet of the recording process for “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” And it’s hard not to be taken aback by the brief outtakes we see from the shoot for “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a breakup ballad that went No. 1 all over the planet, accompanied by one of the starkest, most emotionally penetrating videos ever, the anguished singer staring right at us, singing directly to a lover she can’t let go of. (The tears that came near the end of the performance were spontaneous, says O’Connor, who was thinking of her deceased mother during those intense close-ups.) But where most movies of this ilk follow a predictable rise-then-fall-then-rise-again script, Nothing Compares constantly couches O’Connor’s creative highs in melancholy resignation.

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That comes through in O’Connor’s weary tone during the modern-day interviews—her voice is much less buoyant now than during her stardom—but it’s also because we know where we’re headed. Her story is one with an inevitable unhappy ending.Even as The Lion and the Cobra was earning raves and landing the blazing young talent on huge stages like the Grammys, Nothing Compares sees the storm clouds brewing. The first warning signs come from her appearances on talk shows, where the hosts—all male, of course—simply can’t get over the fact that such a pretty girl would shave her head. She seems so demure with that charming smile and big, bright eyes: Where did all these angry songs come from, little lady?

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Much like Lorena and Framing Britney Spears, Nothing Compares is a damning exploration of patriarchal pop-culture snideness—how young women in the public eye were quickly reduced to sexual objects or punchlines, or were doted on in a patronizingly paternal way. (Gay Byrne, the pompous longtime host of Ireland’s The Late Late Show, is particularly egregious in his condescending interactions with O’Connor) The clips are presented unadorned, but we can see O’Connor is savvy enough to grin and bear it, willing to play the game while subtly despising the power dynamics at work. For anyone too young to remember the era, Nothing Compares’ archival clips are abhorrent. For anyone old enough to have lived through it, the movie will stick another dagger into any rosy nostalgia you might have for your youth.

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As the film makes plain, sexism infected everything in O’Connor’s orbit. When she became pregnant while making The Lion and the Cobra, her label tried to pressure her into getting an abortion. She refused, but the fights didn’t stop there: Record execs wouldn’t issue her album in the U.S. with the cover of her screaming that appeared elsewhere, selecting a softer, more “feminine” image, and avoiding photos that revealed her pregnant belly. And when she balked at performing at a show in New Jersey wherethe National Anthem would play before her appearance—this was in 1990, when U.S. patriotic fervor was running high thanks to the Gulf War—the result was akin to the backlash the Chicks faced for critizicing George W. Bush more than a decade later. In both cases, the vitriolic response felt gendered: Why don’t these pretty girls just shut up and sing? As proof, Nothing Compares pulls out a cringey 1991 SNL clip of Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra—who in real life had said about the National Anthem controversy, “I’d kick her ass if she were a guy”—bashing O’Connor, played by a gloomy-gus Jan Hooks. Hartman’s Sinatra is a cartoonish blowhard, but O’Connor was portrayed as a joyless bore and a mouthy broad with a funny accent, the worst offenses imaginable. In a decade that would later try its best to elevate a select handful of self-possessed women rock artists—Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Alanis Morissette—O’Connor was just a little too early for the parade.

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Nothing Compares methodically lays out the many scandals that ensnared O’Connor—leading up to, of course her 1992 attack on the Pope, who shielded sexual abusers in the Catholic Church. But Ferguson doesn’t treat O’Connor as someone in need of defending, instead casting her as someone fully in command of her own destiny, consequences be damned. That same spirit behind her refusal to back down to label heads fueled her activism against the Church, censorship, racism, and the so-called pro-life movement. O’Connor had spent her life fleeing the repressive society she grew up in; she wasn’t about to start genuflecting now that she was a pop star.

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Ferguson eventually brings us back to that fateful night at Madison Square Garden. Before O’Connor impulsively lets fly with “War,” Kris Kristofferson comes on stage to comfort her, saying, “Don’t let the bastards get you down”—to which she replies, without flinching, “I’m not down.” Maybe not, but her career never recovered, although the film struggles to achieve an optimistic finale: “Since 1993,” a closing title card informs us, “Sinéad has released 7 further albums to critical acclaim and toured extensively.” That really doesn’t tell the whole story. Outside Ireland, her albums have barely charted. More distressingly, she has battled severe mental-health issues, including contemplating suicide. (Earlier this year, she lost her 17-year-old son Shane to suicide.) In 2021, she published a memoir, Rememberings, and looked back at her turbulent life, but even that didn’t return inspire a swath of critical reassessments. That toxic media image of her in her mid-20s as petulant and “crazy” has remained. “I never said I was tough/ That was everyone else,” she sang on I Do Not Want’s “You Cause as Much Sorrow,” later adding, “I really am soft/ Yes, I’m tender and sweet.” But the world didn’t accept that, and instead she had to fight.

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Last year, music critic Jessica Hopper noted that O’Connor “was the first celebrity in mainstream culture to be canceled”—which might be true, but it wasn’t for the sins that get entertainers “canceled” today. Instead, she was persecuted for speaking out and resisting the box that women performers are forced to reside in. Long before Britney Spears, she was sidelined as “erratic” and turned into a joke, an effective strategy for diminishing an artist whose principles were as potent as her songs. Maybe she saw it all coming: “They laugh ’cause they know they’re untouchable,” she once declared, “Not because what I said was wrong.”

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It might feel strange that Nothing Compares mostly ignores the last 30 years while suggesting how O’Connor has inspired a new generation of artists, like Peaches, who testify to her greatness. But if Ferguson sidesteps the fractious nature of O’Connor’s subsequent life and career—letting her close with a recent, somewhat pained rendition of her 1994 expression of gratitude, “Thank You for Hearing Me”—there’s also something touching about the gesture. If we’re ever to begin to understand what O’Connor’s life has been like since the press stopped kicking her around, first we have to grapple with her tumultuous time in the public eye, which arguably shaped all the misery that followed.

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Recent programs that have rehabilitated famous women who didn’t deserve their persecution assure us that things are better now—that we’re an evolved society that’s put its sexist past behind us. Nothing Compares isn’t so sure. A brilliant songwriter, a singular singer, a stunning talent, O’Connor was never very good at playing nice, and Ferguson respects her subject enough to craft a portrait that refuses to be warm and fuzzy. There’s a snarl to Nothing Compares, a lingering fury about how society still treats young women who dare speak their mind, from X González to Greta Thunberg to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This film remembers what Sinéad O’Connor went through. Don’t you forget—or think it can’t still happen to someone else.

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