During her ascendant, hot-rocket period (’85 to ’92), Sinead O’Connor was one of the greatest rockers ever — a ballsy poet, provocateur, wailer, screecher, torch carrier…a woman with a voice that mixed exquisite style and control with primal pain. She was / is magnificent. I still listen to The Lion and the Cobra and I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got, and I still love “Madinka”, “Jerusalem”, “Troy” and “Nothing Compares 2 U”…all of it, the primal energy, the shifting pitch of her voice, the Irish punk banshee thing…wow.
It doesn’t matter that this happened 30 to 35 years ago, and that O’Connor has lived a convulsive, ebb-and-flow life ever since…one torrential spew or tussle or throw-down after another…or that she now performs in Muslim robes (having converted two or three years ago)…what matters is that from age 19 through 26, or for roughly eight years, O’Connor was a blazing art-rocker of the first order and an unstoppable historic force…like Bob Dylan was between ’61 and the motorcycle accident + Blonde on Blonde crescendo of ’66.
Kathryn Ferguson’s Nothing Compares, a 96-minute doc that I saw late yesterday afternoon, is mainly about O’Connor’s rise, peak and fall over that eight-year period. (The last 30 years are acknowledged but mainly in the credit crawl.) Sinead’s climactic crisis, of course, was that infamous mass rejection that followed her defiant “tearing up the Pope photo” performance on a 10.3.92 airing of Saturday Night Live, which then was followed by the booing she received at a Dylan 30th Anniversary tribute concert in Madison Square Garden about two weeks later.
She never recovered the magic mojo.
Ferguson’s doc says three important things. One, Sinead’s fiery temperament came from a horribly abusive childhood, principally due to her monstrous mother (who died in a car crash in ’86), and as a musician she radiated such a bruised, scarred and beat-to-hell psychology that…well, blame her awful mom and her shitty dad also. Two, her peak period was magnificent, and if nothing else the doc will remind you of this. Three, Sinead was right about the Pope, or rather the institutional abuse of children at the hands of pedophile priests, and so she was way ahead of her time. (The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team made a huge splash with their ’02 report about the Catholic church hiding the criminal misdeeds of priests abusing Boston-area children, and of course Tom McCarthy‘s Spotlight came along in ’15.)
O’Connor has soldiered on and kept plugging for the last 30 years, and obviously there’s an intrepid aspect and bravery in that, and yet Ferguson ignores the blow-by-blow — the lurching, shifting, sporadic turbulence that has marked O’Connor’s life ever since (not including the devastating suicide of her son Shane earlier this month, which happened well after the film had wrapped).
Side observation #1: The 55-year-old O’Connor doesn’t appear in the doc as an on-camera talking head, although she narrates a good portion of it. I have to say that the deep, guttural sound of her present-day voice — honestly? — sounds like a dude’s. Booze, cigarettes, whatever…the speaking voice she had in interviews from the late ’80s and early ’90s is gone.
Side observation #2: The Prince estate refused to allow Ferguson to use “Nothing Compares 2 U”, as the song was authored by Prince and owned by the estate. What a dick move! A low-budget doc that pays devotional tribute to O’Connor and the Prince estate refuses to allow her most famous recording to be heard? Jesus…this has to be one of the lowest scumbag moves in rock-music history.
Side observation #3: Who were those assholes who booed O’Connor at a Dylan concert, of all things? Her manner of conveyance was overly blunt, agreed, and she probably should have toned it down, but c’mon, her Pope protest was about protecting children from abuse and pain and thousands of Dylan fans fucking booed her?
Good paragraph from Owen Gleiberman’s Variety review: “From a young age, O’Connor had the perception to link the domestic abuse she suffered to the backdrop that had helped shape it: the stern punitive force with which the Catholic Church held Ireland in its grip, the oppression that she says shaped her mother, her mother’s mother, and so on, going back for generations.
“The first rock ‘n’ rollers were throwing off the sexual shackles of Victorianism. By the time O’Connor came along, that battle had been won, but she was throwing off her own primal shackles. And when you see her on stage in her early appearances, channeling her inner fury in a song like ‘Troy,’ or her triumph over it in the ecstatic ‘Mandinka,’ you feel the catharsis. She had the rock alchemist’s gift for turning rage into excitement.”