Early on in the absorbing new documentary Nothing Compares, the film’s subject Sinéad O’Connor, recorded in a recent interview, is heard saying, “I didn’t want to be a pop star. I just wanted to scream.” It’s probably just as well, since her brand of brutal, often divisive honesty led to an exile from the mainstream almost as quickly as the unlikely A-list pop star arrived.
Many young women of the late 80s saw the singer songwriter as the representation of righteous anger and grrrrrl power, and they found 1987’s The Lion and the Cobra transformative. Still, even some of her most devoted fans didn’t know her challenging past, or complicated history of abuse and neglect.
In this cinematic and visually inventive film, Belfast director Kathryn Ferguson uses a feminist lens to shine a brighter light on the singer/songwriter, with a focus on the early part of her career between 1987 and 1993, a time that highlights her meteoric rise and subsequent boot from the top for being a woman who spoke too loudly and too honestly. Ferguson blends footage and images from the time, and interviews from O’Connor, those she knew, and those she inspired, but avoids the use of talking heads in favor of creative editing. She reveals O’Connor as an insightful, emotionally damaged artist with unshakeable integrity, a firebrand that caused controversy even as she was speaking truth and changing the future of pop music for the women that would come after her.
Through voiceover, Sinéad O’Connor accompanies viewers through the entirety of Ferguson’s film, revealing insights from her present-day perspective. First, there was the violent childhood highlighted by a mother’s neglect and abuse, which included being forced to live outside in their garden for weeks at a time. “My mother was a beast, and I was able to soothe her with my voice,” explains O’Connor. As a 14 year old ‘problem child’, she was sent to Our Lady Charity Laundry in Dublin, a workhouse that was a part of the notorious Magdalene Laundries. There she and the other girls cried daily and were constantly being told they were terrible. Dying women who had been there for 50 or 60 years lived on the top floor, and she was routinely sent to sleep with them as punishment. Those experiences would haunt O’Connor the rest of her life, becoming demons she would seek to exorcise through her songs and performances.
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