Shaped by childhood abuse both personal and institutional, as a rebellious teenager O’Connor was sent to be raised by nuns in a cloistered order. It was also home to a Magdalene asylum, filled with women incarcerated for the “sin” of pregnancy out of wedlock, their babies given away or buried in mass graves, a scandal that would eventually explode in the 2000s amid other sexual abuse scandals that engulfed the Catholic church, with cover ups reaching as far as the Vatican.
O’Connor compares Ireland to “an abused child”, and notes, with controlled anger (in an interview from the nineties), that she herself is “a battered child” speaking on behalf of so many others. “The world’s not going to be able to shut us up, just cos they don’t want to hear about it.”
All of this provides context for the more joyful side of the documentary, in which we are shown an extraordinary artist flourishing in the form of skinny young girl with an electrifying voice discovering “therapy” in music. O’Connor seems sweetly innocent in early footage, with a shy smile that lights up her whole face, yet there is a steely resolve throughout to speak and sing her own truth, notwithstanding that the results often mire her in controversy.
She became a global star with a supernaturally emotional version of Prince’s Nothing Compares 2 U in 1990, which Ferguson dramatically presents via outtakes of O’Connor crying while filming her famous video. The tears were shed for her mother, who died in a car accident in 1986, with the problems between them unresolved. “I never stopped crying for my mother,” notes O’Connor.
End credits reveal that the Prince Estate denied the filmmakers the use of the song, an act of petty vindictiveness presumably in revenge for O’Connor’s depiction of Prince as a creepy bully in last year’s autobiography, Rememberings. It only serves as another reminder of the kind of controlling and borderline misogynistic behaviour O’Connor has wrestled with throughout her career.
The footage of O’Connor ripping up her mother’s precious photograph of Pope John Paul II on American TV show Saturday Night Live in October 1992 still has a viscerally shocking impact. But the hectoring tone of mockery and condemnation from public and celebrities that followed seems horribly misjudged now, especially in the light of what we know about subsequent scandals in the Catholic church.
The effective climax of Ferguson’s film is O’Connor’s appearance at a Bob Dylan tribute concert at Madison Square Garden two weeks later, a fragile young woman standing defiantly alone on stage as almost 20,000 people vigorously boo her. Unbowed, she launches into a furious acapella rendition of Bob Marley’s War, singing “Until basic human rights / Are equally guaranteed to all … I say war! Child abuse, yeah! Child abuse, yeah! Everywhere is war!”
Ferguson effectively ends O’Connor’s personal story there. “They took my heart and killed me, but I did not die,” is how she sums up the next 10 years of her life, in which her popularity and career crashed. Yet there would be vindication to come, as the Catholic church was forced to apologise for its transgressions, and Ireland repealed anti-divorce, contraception and homosexuality laws. O’Connor has come to be viewed by many (including, notably, a lot of significant female musical artists all around the world) as an outspoken and pioneering feminist.
In choosing to follow this particular narrative, Ferguson notably sidesteps many of the personal complications of O’Connor’s life: her chaotic relationships (she has had four children, with four different fathers), her very public struggles with mental health and suicidal ideation and her self-ordainment as a Catholic priest and subsequent conversion to Islam. There are other stories that could be told about her, perhaps not so flattering. Yet this moving film provides a compelling context for her disorderly existence and persuasively reframes O’Connor as a heroic figure, a damaged soul who found redemption in art, and bravely hewed a singular path, speaking unpalatable truth to power, and calling to account her (and by implication multitudes of other women and children’s) persecutors in the face of pernicious misogyny, savage mockery and career destroying criticism.
It concludes, upliftingly, with a glimpse of O’Connor in the present, a handsome 55-year-old shaven-headed woman dressed in her trademark blue hijab, performing her inspirational anthem Thank You For Hearing Me. Some might criticise its narrow focus, but on its own terms Nothing Compares is the most potent and hard-hitting film about the travails of a woman in the pop industry since Asif Kapadia’s 2016 Oscar-winning Amy. And what makes it ultimately more heartening than that anguished documentary about Amy Winehouse, is that O’Connor offers a story of survival.
Cert TBC, 97 min. Showing at the Sundance Film Festival. UK release TBC