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Nothing Compares (A Movie Review)


Featuring Sinéad O’Connor, Jeannette Byrne, Paul Byrne, Mike Clowes, Bill Coleman, Chuck D, Fr. Brian D’Arcy, John Grant, Kate Garner, Margo Harkin, Roisin Ingle, Dr. Sinéad Kennedy, Clodagh Latimer, Claire Lewis, John Maybury, Peaches, Marco Pirroni, John Reynolds, Elaine Schock, Skin and Jerry Stafford.

Written by Eleanor Emptage, Kathryn Ferguson and Michael Mallie.

Directed by Kathryn Ferguson.

Distributed by Showtime. 96 minutes. Not Rated.

The Sinéad O’Connor documentary Nothing Compares starts with one of the more horrific moments in an often-tragic life.

It took place soon after the Irish vocalist started a media firestorm while performing on Saturday Night Live, where after doing a passionate a capella rendition of Bob Marley’s protest song “War,” O’Connor said to the camera, “Fight the real enemy” and ripped up a photo of Pope John Paul II. (At the time of the incident, SNL head honcho Lorne Michaels banned O’Connor from the show and swore that the footage of the performance would never be seen again, however it has been trotted out often over the years – and is included yet again in this documentary.)

Anyway, soon afterwards, O’Connor had been invited to an all-star celebration of Bob Dylan’s 30 years in music. All of the guest singers were performing Dylan songs in honor of the show’s host. Kris Kristofferson introduced O’Connor, “I’m real proud to introduce this next artist whose name became synonymous with courage and integrity. Ladies and gentlemen, Sinéad O’Connor.” and the New York crowd turned on her – booing her lustily to the point that she could not even get her song (which was supposed to be Dylan’s 1979 tune “I Believe in You”) out. She stood silently at the microphone for a while, but the booing just got worse. Finally she spat out another angry rendition of Marley’s “War” and stalked offstage.

What was it about O’Connor – a woman who was smart, principled, passionate, giving, progressive, professional and both fierce and damaged at the same time – which brought out these intense reactions?

Nothing Compares tries, mostly successfully, to explain this. It also does a good job of showing how O’Connor was ahead of her time – both as a musician and as a human rights activist. It also shows that beyond all other things, she was a scared former victim of abuse who was in way over her head in a world she wasn’t even sure she wanted to be a part of.

Nothing Compares mostly focuses on the years 1987 to 1993, the supernova part of O’Connor’s early career when she released her first three albums – The Lion and the Cobra (1987), I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got (1990) and the all-covers album Am I Not Your Girl? It was also the period of time when – for better or worse (and sometimes both) – O’Connor was a regular in the rock and tabloid press.

If you lived through the 1980s and 90s, you probably remember it well. O'Connor went from a talented, sensitive alt-rock chick to a superstar who had had to deal with a million-selling single and the apparent inability to follow it up. Then she had to deal with the “Star-Spangled Banner” incident, the bald chick jokes, the Pope controversy, getting lustily booed off the stage at the Garden, a failed suicide attempt and even the threat of an ass-kicking from Ol’ Blue Eyes. (And, this documentary shows, also the threat of a beatdown from Joe Pesci.)

O’Connor, speaking now with years of hindsight, acknowledges that she never got into music for money and stardom. In fact, she considered it a form of therapy, and if no one ever heard it, she was fine with that. Early on, when she got critical acclaim and a certain amount of notice for her debut album and her first single “Mandinka,” her life was mostly in control. She married young, had a baby, toyed with acting and was able to mostly live her own life. Even her dramatic fashion sense and look was not to get attention, it was just an expression of her individuality.

Of course, all this changed when O’Connor recorded a fairly obscure song by musical icon Prince called “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which the songwriter had written for the debut album of a short-lived group on his label called The Family, which was a spinoff of The Time. “Nothing Compares” wasn’t even the single from The Family album, it was a song called “The Screams of Passion.” It was an album track on a barely noticed record. And O’Connor’s sparse and emotional cover made the song her own – and became a number one single internationally.

It seemed odd that throughout the film they have lots of O’Connor’s music throughout the film, with the exception of her one huge hit single, the one song she is known best for. Then a chyron over the end credits explains ‘The Prince Estate denied use of Sinéad’s recording of ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’ in this film.” In fact, O’Connor’s entire, somewhat fraught relationship with the late music superstar who wrote her biggest hit is completely ignored, to the point that the film never even mentions that it was Prince who wrote the song until that quick disclaimer at the end of the film.

Other tragedies in her life were also skirted over or not mentioned, like her attempted suicide attempt and her son’s later problems with mental illness and drugs which led to his death. This last thing happened years after the thrust of the film, however at the end Nothing Compares does flash forward to the present day for a performance and also to celebrate the large part O’Connor played in getting abortion legalized in her home of Ireland – and her difficulties with her son was certainly a defining part of her life.

However, I can see why O’Connor would not want to discuss these horrible situations and I cannot totally blame director Kathryn Ferguson for not pushing these subjects. Nothing Compares is more of a celebration of a quirky, groundbreaking career and a woman’s principled (if sometimes a little exasperating) refusal to be what the machine wanted from her.

And it is good to see that despite all of the hardships she has had through her life – whether self-caused or through wild fate – Sinéad O’Connor seems to have become a rather well-grounded and somewhat content adult. Also, Nothing Compares proves that she was never just a one-hit-wonder. Even without her biggest hit, there is some fantastic music here that still feels groundbreaking 30 years on.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2022 All rights reserved. Posted: September 30, 2022.


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