It’s a rare thing to witness an audience spontaneously bursting into applause in a cinema.
But that is what happened twice during a screening of the Sinead O’Connor documentary ‘Nothing Compares’ at the Stella Cinema in Ranelagh in her hometown on Friday night.
Kathryn Ferguson’s stirring documentary hinges on a moment when the Dubliner ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on NBC’s satirical show ‘Saturday Night Live,’ declaring: “Fight the real enemy!”
It was an act of defiance born out of personal suffering but it triggered the mother of all backlashes, derailing the singer’s career.
O’Connor was dismissed by many in the media and the entertainment industry as difficult, nutty and mouthy.
Following a deluge of complaints from conservative Catholics, NBC denounced her.
During the following week’s show, guest host Joe Pesci told viewers he wanted to smack her.
Madonna also ridiculed her actions – ripping up a photo of Joey Buttafuocco for comic effect while promoting her ‘Erotica’ album and attacking Sinead for her looks.
Responding to the fact that O’Connor was protesting on ‘Saturday Night Live’ against child abuse, the feminist critic Camille Paglia told one TV show that in the singer’s case child abuse was “justified” – a clip that still gets gasps to this day.
O’Connor was ridiculed, attacked and was cancelled.
The entertainment industry couldn’t stomach an artist who wouldn’t conform.
Even worse, it couldn’t stomach a woman with strong opinions.
‘Nothing Compares’ isn’t your typical rockumentary.
It doesn’t examine the full span of O’Connor’s career.
It isn’t interested in the 55 year old’s four marriages or her other high profile relationships.
The film doesn’t dive too deeply into Sinead’s very public struggles with her mental health later in life, her brief flirtation with politics and with Sinn Fein, her time as an ordained Latin Tridentine Church priest or her conversion to Islam.
Instead Ferguson and fellow writers Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie focus on the upward trajectory of a remarkable career and its sudden, spectacular crash.
They do so while making a compelling argument about her huge cultural significance not just in her homeland as it gradually wriggled free from the grip of the Catholic Church but also in encouraging women to speak out around the world.
Using unseen footage of Sinead rehearsing and clips from live performances and talk show appearances, the documentary avoids the convention of showing talking heads reflecting on O’Connor’s life.
Ferguson instead gives us audio of seminal figures in her life interviewed during the course of the film like John Reynolds, her first husband and O’Connor’s music teacher Jeanette Byrne as they tell the story of how she became a fearless artist.
O’Connor’s childhood story is an unhappy one, with an abusive mother prone to violence and extreme cruelty.
Early on the film, she recalls falling foul of her mum and being shut out of the family home at the age of eight and made to live in the back garden for a week.
Her mother’s cruelty was born out of an obsession with the Catholic Church whose oppressive grip in Irish society was such that going to dances beyond midnight was regarded by some as a mortal sin.
Falling foul of her parents and the authorities because of truancy and bring caught shoplifting, Sinead was sent as a teenager to An Grianan, a home run by nuns from the Order of Our Lady of Charity.
It was there where she would encounter women from the Magdalene Laundries, Catholic Church run institutions for “fallen women” deemed too sexually promiscuous to live among men.
Some of the women were incarcerated for being flirtatious. Others were hidden away because they had been raped by priests, doctors or other pillars in their community or abused by their own fathers.
O’Connor’s escape from this bleak, unjust world came in the form of music, with her teacher Jeanette Byrne blown away by her voice at one session when she sang a version of ‘Scarlet Ribbons‘.
The teacher would ask Sinead to sing Barbra Streisand’s ‘Evergreen’ at her wedding where Byrne’s brother Paul, the drummer in the up and coming band In Tua Nua was also bowled over by what he heard.
She would co-write and record with the group and form another band Ton Ton Macoute after placing an ad in Hot Press magazine.
Ton Ton Macoute would rehearse in Dublin’s Temple Bar opposite the Bad Ass Cafe, instilling a love of live performance in the Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Bruce Springsteen fan.
With her extraordinary voice, it wasn’t long before Sinead fell onto the radar of figures in the music industry and she was whisked away to London by Ensign Records to build a solo career and work on her debut album ‘The Lion and The Cobra’.
What subsequently emerges in Ferguson’s film is the portrait of an artist who confidence grows as she refuses from the off to play the game that the entertainment industry sets.
Becoming pregnant with her first child Jake, she resists pressure from music industry chiefs to have an abortion.
Sinead defies them by shaving her head and refusing to conform to the big hair, lip glossed, sexualised stereotype of female singers of the time.
Finding common cause with the Afro Carribbean and LGBTQ communities, she creates a gender neutral image that is way ahead of its time.
Then ‘Mandinka’ is released.
The sheer energy and defiance of the song propels her into the ‘Top of the pops’ studio.
It also takes her all the way to the 1989 Grammy Awards where, performing in front of a star studded audience that includes Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones, she sports the logo of the rap act Public Enemy on the side of her shaved head in solidarity with their boycott of the ceremony for ignoring hip hop.
The film conveys the madness of her rollercoaster ride to superstardom as O’Connor’s follow-up album ‘I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got’ in 1990 is released and her remarkable cover version of Prince’s ‘Nothing Compares 2 U‘ accelerates her career with its tear drenched video.
Beneath the showbiz pizazz, Ferguson shows an artist keen to use her platform to challenge record industry norms and highlight important issues.
‘Black Boys On Mopeds‘ tackles police racism in Britain.
‘The Emperor’s New Clothes‘ remains remarkably confessional and like a personal manifesto.
A refusal to go onstage during the Gulf War in Saratoga in 1990 if the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ was played before her appearance provoked the first backlash against her.
But that was nothing compared to the ‘Saturday Night Live’ controversy.
As it chronicles her downfall, Ferguson’s film doesn’t pull its punches in exposing sexism within the entertainment industry.
It shows how O’Connor was a pioneer on so many levels – in the way she looked, the issues she tackled, the musical genres she fused, the way she refused to play by the rules.
Her fearlessness paved the way for future stars like The Dixie Chicks, Lily Allen, Lady Gaga, Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish to be more outspoken and champion causes like opposing the invasion of Iraq, gay rights and the pro choice movement.
It is striking that the music industry could tolerate Johnny Rotten, Bob Geldof or Morrissey being forceful in their views but, God forbid, a woman could express such opinions.
The price O’Connor paid was being frozen out of the mainstream which vilified her for exercising her right to free speech at home, in the US and around the world.
Viewers will cringe during ‘Nothing Compares’ at a succession of clips from RTE’s long running chat show ‘The Late Late Show’ where its original host Gay Byrne, who pushed boundaries in his own way, patronises Sinead O’Connor by appearing to chide her for her appearance, for refusing to allow the US national anthem before her gig in Saratoga and for just not conforming.
There are echoes of Any Winehouse in Asif Kapadia’s ‘Amy’ in the way that she becomes a reluctant pop star caught in a maelstrom of fame.
Luckily O’Connor has survived it when others didn’t but she has emerged undoubtedly bruised.
‘Nothing Compares’ brilliantly makes the case for why O’Connor was right to do what she did.
In the years that followed, a succession of paedophilia scandals rocked the Catholic Church not just in Ireland but the US, Europe and acrosd the world.
Pope Benedict XVI was even accused of failing to act against four priests when confronted as a German Bishop about their crimes.
The hideous treatment of women in mother and baby homes, the wall of silence around forced adoptions and the unmarked graves of babies in Tuam have all come to light.
The Irish Republic has also embraced the causes O’Connor championed – multiculturalism, gay marriage and the introduction of abortion.
Its transformation into a bastion of liberal values has been a massive leap forward from the days when Fr Charles McQuaid, before he became Archbishop of Dublin, could oppose athletics events in 1934 on the grounds of moral decency because he feared the impact of women flaunting their bodies.
It is a world away from a state where the same cleric could write to the country’s Health Minister 10 years later about the moral threat posed by Tampax following discussions among the Council of Bishops and call for them to be denied to unmarried women.
It is a very different nation from the austere Church dominated society depicted in Peter Lennon’s 1967 documentary ‘The Rocky Road To Dublin‘ which features in Ferguson’s film.
The spontaneous applause at Friday night’s screening in Ranelagh during the scenes of her ripping up the picture of the Pope just rams that fact home.
In James Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the Artist As A Young Man,’ Stephen Dedalus famously proclaims: “Ireland is the sow who eats her own farrow.”
‘Nothing Conpares’ shows how O’Connor, now called Shuhada Sadaqat following her conversion to Islam, refused to be eaten alive eithdr in her homeland, the US or anywhere else.
Unapologetic for what she did on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and rightly so, she tells Ferguson: “They all thought I should be made a mockery of for throwing my career down the drain.
“I never set out to be a pop star, so I didn’t throw away my career.
“I wasn’t sorry. I didn’t regret it. It was the proudest thing I’ve ever done as an artist.
“They killed me but I didn’t die. They tried to bury me but they didn’t realise I was a seed.”
That seed continues to bear incredible fruit as her performance of ‘Thank You For Hearing Me’ on ‘The Late Late Show’ two years ago demonstrates over the final credits of Ferguson’s terrific documentary.
It’s a seed that deserves to be cherished in a film that celebrates a spirit that has weathered the harshest of storms.
(‘Nothing Compares’ was released in UK and Irish cinemas on October 7, 2022)