Nothing Compares


Reviewed by: Jeremy Mathews

Nothing Compares
"Finds a strong propulsive narrative with an emotional core."

It’s hard to think of an artist with more fiery passion and obstinate stubbornness than Sinéad O’Connor. The Irish singer quickly lit the world on fire with her distinct, passionate voice, and just as quickly became a political lightning rod and late-night punchline. The documentary Nothing Compares recounts this meteoric rise and fall while making a compelling case that O’Connor was ahead of the curve as an outspoken female artist.

Avoiding charges of being another talking-heads music doc, director Kathryn Ferguson tells the story entirely with archival footage and reenactments. Recent interviews are heard only as voiceover. We don’t even see modern-day Sinead until the live performance that caps the film. She and editor Mick Mahon introduce some meditative and emotional elements to the skillfully compiled archival material.

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The documentary charts O’Connor’s career from 1987 to 1992, as she recorded and released her first three albums. It culminates in the aftermath of the controversies that arose when she refused to have the US national anthem played before a concert and tore up a picture of the Pope at the end of her performance on Saturday Night Live. The prologue features two parts of O’Connor’s childhood that become key to the movie: her relationship with her abusive mother and her exposure to a Magdalene Laundry as a teenager. These memories are called back throughout the story, both subtly and explicitly, to create an emotional connection to O’Connor’s music and performance.

The movie may be guilty of smoothing out some of its subject’s rough edges. For example, it discusses how O’Connor defiantly refused when record executives tried to tell her to have an abortion before her first album came out, but leaves out that she did have an abortion in 1991 while very swamped and on tour — an odd decision given O’Connor’s outspoken support for abortion rights.

There will also surely be a case that the film doesn’t shed much light on O’Connor’s later life, even as the epilogue calls out the merits of the seven albums O’Connor released since 1992. And sure, it feels hollow to say how good yet ignored the albums are without discussing their production or content at all. However, documentary filmmakers must always decide how to frame and structure their story, and the choice to focus on the period of her greatest fame provides a natural story arc while giving the audience what they’re most interested in. While Edgar Wright’s documentary The Sparks Brothers from the previous Sundance Film Festival showed that you can do an album-by-album chronological journey, it also showed that it doesn’t necessarily provide much narrative shape.

Nothing Compares, by contrast, finds a strong propulsive narrative with an emotional core. It really strikes emotional nerves to witness a young, stubborn woman win the public’s love, then face its hatred, but still try to stay true to herself.

Reviewed on: 24 Jan 2022
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The story of Sinéad O'Connor's phenomenal rise to worldwide fame and subsequent exile from the pop mainstream. Focusing on Sinéad's prophetic words and deeds from 1987 to 1993, the film reflects on the legacy of this fearless trailblazer through a contemporary feminist lens.

Director: Kathryn Ferguson

Writer: Eleanor Emptage, Kathryn Ferguson, Michael Mallie

Starring: Sinéad O'Connor

Year: 2022

Runtime: 97 minutes

Country: UK, Ireland

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