Told through reenactments, archive footage, and interviews with her ex-husband, family friends, and her own words, 'Nothing Compares' catalogues the meteoric rise to global superstardom and the exile faced by Sinéad O'Connor in the early '90s, leading up to her stunning performance on 'SNL' where she tore up a picture of Pope John Paul II in protest over the Catholic Church's handling of child abuse.
It is a widely known fact that in any field - be it art, sport, politics, whatever - the first one through the wall usually ends up bloodied. Sinéad O'Connor knows this to be true. What comes across from this documentary is that the singer-songwriter had no other choice because compromising herself or yielding to pressure simply wasn't in her make-up. In numerous interviews, O'Connor lays bare the stark realities of coming up through the music industry. She alleges that her record label tried to convince her to end her pregnancy in her twenties, just as she was about to release 'The Lion and the Cobra'. Contemporary news footage and talking head chat shows laugh about her hairstyle or, in one particularly foul moment, say that O'Connor's childhood abuse was justified.
Yet, through it all, O'Connor's voice never falters and never wavers. She speaks fluidly, clearly, both in the here and now and as a younger woman. Some of the interviews - particularly those with Gay Byrne on 'The Late Late Show' - now reek of patronising sexism, yet you can see none of it flags O'Connor down in the slightest. She keeps on speaking truth to power. It's important to remember when watching 'Nothing Compares' just how bold and radical her message and her image was. It's only at the end, when the likes of Billie Eilish or Ariana Grande are brought up, that it is made abundantly clear that O'Connor broke walls for them to follow through.
Smartly, director Kathryn Ferguson never cuts the footage up with talking head interviews, instead utilising O'Connor's music videos, outtakes from them, live concert footage, and her interviews to line up the story with the narration from the interviewees. John Reynolds, O'Connor's first husband and long-time producer, speaks candidly about the intrusion of the press in their lives, but also with a wistfulness of how young and carefree they were. It's heartbreaking stuff when you see the photos of them together as twenty-somethings with a young child, knowing what's coming down the line for both of them. The choice of live performances included in 'Nothing Compares' is just as revealing - in particular, a sensuous live version of the jazz standard 'You Do Something To Me' in front of an audience of drag queens in the '90s.
What comes through loud and clear in 'Nothing Compares' is that time and time again, our nation has failed its daughters and Sinéad O'Connor is one of them. Whether it was the stranglehold of religious dogma, repressed patriarchy, or the stigma of mental illness, Ireland has come a long way since its dark past and still has further to go before it can become a place worthy of its most recognised artists. O'Connor blasts the institutions where she was raised, the repression and rage her mother felt that was channelled into abuse, and while it's all swept away in the glare of stardom, you see how the weight of it is still bearing on her and how the need to protest, to fight back, was formed through this.
In the end, in her own words, Sinéad O'Connor never wanted to be a pop star. She was, and is, a protest singer.