“Nothing Compares,” the documentary about Sinead O’Connor that premiered at the virtual 2022 Sundance Film Festival on Friday, is a movie that is both timely and curiously out of time. It’s a potent film that explores the roots of the brilliant but troubled Irish singer, who’s been back in the news recently with the suicide of her teenage son and her own hospitalization, but it also turns her recent years into an afterthought, bypassing many of the highs and lows that led her here over the last two decades.
It has an upbeat ending of sorts, painting O’Connor as a survivor who is now receiving her due, and that part necessarily feels hollow the week after she went to a hospital after making her own threats of self-harm. But “Nothing Compares” does make a persuasive case for her as a formidable artist, self-destructive but indomitable, while its portrait of her brutal childhood at the hands of her family and her church makes it clear why and how she ended up as haunted as she clearly is.
The film, a first feature from director Kathryn Ferguson, begins with O’Connor’s appearance at the Bob Dylan 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in 1992, when Kris Kristofferson introduced her by saying “her name has become synonymous with courage and integrity.” The applause that followed was almost drowned out by an avalanche of boos, because she’d torn up a picture of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” two weeks earlier.
But when a shaken O’Connor steps away from the microphone as the boos rain down on her, the film jumps back in time to explore the twin stories that were intertwined throughout her life: her passion for music and her hatred for the damage she traced to the Catholic Church in Ireland and its effect on her family.
O’Connor and people close to her speak in interviews that are voice only; while she’s seen talking in archival material, her more recent comments are off-camera in the style of films like Asif Kapadia’s “Amy.” And the interviews, particularly in the early going, are intercut with soft-focus, moody and often as not melodramatic re-enactments.
On the musical side, she says, her inspirations ranged from her father singing old folk songs like “Scarlet Ribbons” to her brother bringing home Bob Dylan’s “born-again” 1979 album, “Slow Train Coming.” “I didn’t want to become a pop star,” she says. “I wanted to scream.” And if the pain behind that comment was what drove O’Connor, it was also a key to her appeal: From the start, her voice often had a fragile, ethereal grace, but it could also rage.
Her rage, she makes clear in “Nothing Compares,” came from her upbringing — initially from beatings at the hands of her mother, a deeply religious woman who was also disturbed and emotionally, psychologically and physically abusive. O’Connor became obsessed with the Bible – because, she said, “I wanted to see what was in this book that they were using to oppress my people.”
A wild child, she was went to a “care home” at the age of 14, but the brutal institution turned out to be linked with one of Ireland’s infamous “Magdalene laundries,” homes where teenage girls who got pregnant out of wedlock were sent and were often forced to work for the rest of their lives after their babies were taken away from them. Her descriptions of this time – particularly of old women who spent their nights crying out for nurses who never came to them – are wrenching, and they haunt the rest of the film.
That experience also fed the first song she wrote, “Take My Hand,” which was recorded by the Irish group In Tua Nua and helped bring her to the attention of the Irish record industry. But O’Connor, wounded and defiant as she was, couldn’t shut up and play along: When an executive at her first record company asked her to grow her hair long, wear short skirts and write inoffensive songs, she shaved her head, refused to play the good girl and wrote songs like the furious “Troy,” about which she says, “It’s not a song, it’s a f—ing testament.”
Her first album was a hit, but her second – 1990’s “I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got” – was a watershed moment personally, professionally and commercially. Its centerpiece was a riveting performance of the intense ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which Prince had written for a side project of his. O’Connor’s version went to No. 1 around the world, buoyed by a video best known for the moment in which a tear runs down O’Connor’s face as the sings the final lines in stark closeup.
The film plays up the song and the moment, but there’s something missing. As you see footage from the video, with a long, suspended chord playing in the background and presumably serving as an intro to the song itself, it may slowly dawn on you that you’re watching O’Connor sing the song but never hearing her do it, and that the chord you’re hearing never actually shifts into the opening of the song. Which is to say, it becomes clear that Prince’s estate wouldn’t give permission for the filmmakers to use the biggest hit of O’Connor’s career, and the song from which the film takes its title.
“Nothing Compares” admits as much in the end credits, though the film never gets into the spat between O’Connor and Prince that no doubt led to that refusal. (She has said, at different times, that she and Prince got into a fistfight after he told her to stop using “bad words” in interviews, that he was actually a sweet guy and that he hit her with a hard object concealed in a pillow case. In a recent New York Times interview, she called him “a violent abuser of women.”)
After “Nothing Compares 2 U” came stardom, and then the “SNL” appearance where she tore up a picture of the Pope that she’d taken off the wall the day her mother died years earlier. The backlash was swift and immediate, both for “SNL” and for refusing to take the stage at a Florida show if the National Anthem was played before her show. Her next album fell off the charts quickly (it didn’t help that it was a big-band album of standards), and then she was gone.
Or, at least, she was gone in the eyes of the record industry, gone from the pop-culture spotlight. She continued working – seven more albums, plus some collaborations, soundtrack recordings and acting jobs – but “Nothing Compares” sticks to her rise and fall and essentially ignores the curious second act that has occupied the last two decades of her life.
And that’s a shame – because by focusing on the years leading up to her fall from grace and then bypassing what came after, the film in a sense writes her off even as it tries to celebrate her. It makes a strong case that she deserved far more respect than she received, and that she had heartbreakingly good reasons for doing all the things that got her branded “crazy” – and then it takes away the second half of her career because the first half makes better copy.
(When I finished watching the film, I put on “Theology,” her spooky and deeply religious 2007 album, and listened to haunting songs like “If You Had a Vineyard” while wishing the movie had told me something about them.)
The focus on her early career was obviously a creative decision made early on, and maybe the latter days are fodder for a sequel. But the decision feels off now; it’d be valuable to fill in the blanks now, as O’Connor faces additional heartbreak and finds her own health precarious once more.
Instead, we get a round of testimonials from the likes of Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Public Enemy’s Chuck D, along with footage of Irish officials publicly apologizing for the Magdalene laundries and some defiant words from O’Connor herself: “They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.”
Those words may still prove to be true, but the line of O’Connor’s that lingers after seeing “Nothing Compares” comes earlier and cuts harder. “We do not know what we’re doing,” she says, “when we scoff at our children’s keening.”
“Nothing Compares” makes its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.