Nothing Compares – Film Review

Nothing Compares – Film Review
by Brian Merriman

Director – Kathryn Ferguson
Writers – Eleanor Emptage, Kathryn Ferguson, Michael Mallie
Star – Sinéad O’Connor

‘Nothing Compares’ is a new documentary on Sinead O’Connor’s rise to fame three decades ago. There is no contemporary footage of O’Connor, but her voice from interviews and some great archival footage is used to illustrate the extraordinary talent and times of this remarkable woman artist.

Written by Eleanor Emptage, Kathryn Ferguson and Michael Mallie and I suspect a great resource was one of their executive producers, her first husband, drummer John Reynolds. The film remains in the time when Reynold’s knowledge was loving and intimate of the iconic subject 1987-1993. His voice is in the film too. He and Sinead have a son Jake. Director Kathryn Ferguson treats her subject with great respect and affection but also journeys down the more negative route that the media now uses to limit our appreciation of her talent, treatment and impact. I suppose that is expected but there is so much more to the incredible artist and commentator that is O’Connor.

The documentary’s political analysis doesn’t live up to the focus and finesse of O’Connor’s own fearless commentary, which not only infused her art but continues to be the statement of her career.

The film’s treatment of her childhood and her politics jumps backwards with the use of archival footage. Many of the depictions of Ireland are from the 60s and the Papal visit in 1979 is the backdrop of the infamous picture tearing that happened in the 1990s. It is also pretty damning to be reminded of the US commentators ‘offence’ over a ripped photograph. This is the society that ended up voting for Trump decades later… without taking offence at his behaviour! There is a morality in O’Connor’s position that is not reflected in the ‘moral majority’ positions of her industry and her audience in later decades.

O’Connor’s childhood is glimpsed through An Grianan – an institution where ‘difficult’ girls were schooled, which was adjacent to a Magdalen Laundry. It was here where musical gifts emerged, apparently. There is no mention of her time in the fee-paying Quaker private Boarding School in Waterford, where she discovered the strong local folk club tradition and as a student performed in front of her first public audiences there. It was a happier time. Throughout this documentary, there is little happiness, and therefore only part of the O’Connor experience is shared with viewers. It is the part all media feeds upon, which is reductive in the face of her extraordinary talent, artistic communication and beguiling beauty.

The video footage is brilliant and reminds us of her brilliance. We see the bright force of nature that she was in her youth. Her insecurities are visible and her lack of self-esteem is truthful at a time of phenomenal achievement. It is also clear that the issues for which she is equally well known for today, were constructed in her being a rare voice of truth, that had to be silenced for the exploitative and controlling status quo to endure. She had remarkable courage, drawn from a commitment to be herself… at all costs. Only her own authenticity mattered she says, and it does give rise to a question – can we live our lives like that – only valuing self?

Her interviews and those with Gay Byrne really raise hackles today (he was no friend to her) and also reveal that she didn’t set out to offend, only to liberate. She is far too intelligent in liberating the voices of the oppressed, not to consider the consequences of the manner she chose of only being true to herself.

There are heroes in the story besides herself, loyal friends, Reynolds, many rappers and artists, her LGBT support base, and especially Kris Kristofferson whose presence and actions at the Dylan 30-year concert in America are a powerful action by any man.

She is very brave, very deliberate, and hates censorship but sometimes perceived good advice as that. She is such an incredible trailblazer for women, children and truth. Deeply scarred by some of life’s experiences, she uses her art as therapy, and in that, gives a voice to so much that was hidden in her life and upbringing.

Her subsequent treatment as a female artist with a voice was just a statement of fact in an industry which treated women artists as a prescribed stereotype. She was no stereotype. Her dress sense was threateningly gender neutral, and the commentary about her shaving her head missed an act of defiance against the norms. The shaved head emphasised her beautiful and hypnotic eyes… through which she communicates so powerfully in ‘Nothing Compare to You’’.

Sinead is no fake. We don’t need to agree or approve of everything she feels and does, but as an artist, it is our privilege to listen. She has a lot to say. Her ability to use so many musical genres from Marley to Jazz is epic.

There is a lot of love in this snapshot of a time in her life. She is so much more than the abuse she was subjected to as a child from her Mother and later from her industry family, as an outstanding female artist. Too often, we still hear too little about her profound artistic presence as media continue to perpetuate the consequences of backlash, that ultimately diminished her career, and her well-being but not the artist.

One positive of her rollercoaster life is that at times she has performed again in smaller intimate venues like Dublin’s Vicar Street and these gigs are unsurpassed in musical quality. In that, the rejection by the global commercial powers has been to our benefit as an audience.

This documentary is a well-made, a selective reminder of the early years of a unique, brave and beautiful artist from 1987-1993. It is a story that has many other chapters as the footage of an exquisite contemporary performance showed at the end. I hope others will continue to tell the full story beyond the six-year limitations of the focus of this hour and a half. It is a very good piece, but it is only one chapter of an extraordinary life…and what a life it is.

Categories: Header, Movie Review, Movies

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