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Losing Her Religion

Andrew Catlin/Sundance Institute

Nothing Compares (2022)

In January 2022 Sinead O’Connor’s 17-year-old son, Shane, committed suicide. This hideous fact will no doubt color the reception of Kathryn Ferguson’s fine documentary “Nothing Compares.” Any praise seems callow in the face of her grief and any criticism feels like twisting the knife. This is especially due to the upsetting public display of Ms. O’Connor’s private grief, part of her tendency to live her every thought out loud, which has been at the heart of her public persona since she began gigging in Dublin as a teenager. This blurring of the personal and the professional is different when a musician does it. A similarly confessional artist like Tracey Emin does can blur the lines because her fame is limited and therefore the reaction more controllable. But Ms. O’Connor’s fame and her notoriety are global, and she ripped up her global career when she ripped up a photo of the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” in 1992. “Nothing Compares” limits its focus to the years of her global rise and sudden fall, from 1987 to 1993. If you think of this documentary as a package of the greatest hits, that makes sense. But as with any compilation album, a lot of nuances are lost.

The meat of the film shows in glorious detail how Ms. O’Connor burst onto the global stage like a beautiful alien in the early ’90s. A woman with a gorgeous voice who had deliberately made herself ugly by shaving her head, she was routinely insulted on live television and in the press (and in my high school) just for that nonconformist gesture. Anything else she did, like her beautiful music, was secondary to this shocking choice, which the marketing managed carefully; her publicists discuss how the photos for the American cover of first album, “The Lion and the Cobra,” were designed to make her look as nonthreatening as possible. Voiceovers from a variety of artists include Chuck D, Kathleen Hanna and John Grant, as well as friends from her early days on the Dublin music scene, discuss the story of her early career. It began while she was still living in a Magdalen laundry as a ward of the state; she commuted to band practice after school. Ms. O’Connor herself also recorded a voiceover, discussing her painful childhood and the happiness of her early career. The movie ends with footage from 2021 of Ms. O’Connor singing while wearing a hijab, making it clear that her voice can still deliver the goods. But the way in which the movie stops its depiction of her life after the Bob Dylan tribute concert (during which, by his kindness to her on that hideous stage, Kris Kristofferson earned himself the right to a seat in heaven) allows the reaction to “the incident” to totally define her life. This ignores seven of her albums, three of her children, her memoir published last year and the fact that in Dublin there are murals dedicated to her as acts of contrition.

In the early ’90s the world (and certainly not America) was not ready to admit to the crimes of the Catholic church, most brutally in how it enabled the sexual abuse of children for decades. Things are different now, of course, and the movie draws a direct line from Ms. O’Connor’s activism to the current, liberalized political landscape in Ireland (where divorce, contraception, gay marriage and abortion are now legal), but also in women-led street protests all around the world.

This might be her partial legacy, but I would argue that it is not the most important aspect of Ms. O’Connor’s work. For her first major appearance on American television, she had the Public Enemy logo painted on the side of her head. They were boycotting the Grammys over their treatment of rap music and she wanted to show her support. Her most famous song is her interpretation of a song by Prince (which his estate, disgracefully, did not authorize use of herein). While white artists covering the work of black ones is certainly nothing new, Ms. O’Connor’s approach was. She didn’t co-opt the Public Enemy logo to make herself cool by association; she did it as an act of solidarity with them. She did not appropriate the songs she sang by black artists for herself – she interpreted them as part of a conversation that neither the music industry nor the audience were really ready to hear. And while the movie’s analysis of her work touches on it, these choices of hers over 30 years ago are still so radical that it’s only recently other artists are beginning to reckon publicly with how the music industry deals with race. Though perhaps this is why the movie skips from 1993 until now – it must be utterly dreadful to know that you’re still ahead of your time. Let’s hope the reception of this movie doesn’t add to Ms. O’Connor’s grief.


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