Album covers used to be mythically important — they could etch the image of a musician forever in your mind’s eye. In “Nothing Compares,” Kathryn Ferguson’s incisive and poignant documentary about the life and career of Sinéad O’Connor, we see the image that was chosen in 1987 for the cover of O’Connor’s first album, “The Lion and the Cobra,” made when she was 20 years old and pregnant: an extraordinary photograph of Sinéad in mid-scream. Talk about mythology! That’s how the album was released in Europe, but for us benighted souls in America, the image was deemed to edgy. It was replaced by that demure shot of Sinéad staring downward.
Sinéad O’Connor was far from the first pop star to scream (you can go back to the earliest rockers) or to scream in rage (John Lennon on “Plastic Ono Band,” a generation of punks). But as “Nothing Compares” shows you, O’Connor framed her very identity as a rock singer around a cry of anger from the depths. She had a scream inside, a wail of fury she was going to let out, and — this was her artistry — she was going to make it beautiful.
Premiering at Sundance tonight, just a couple of weeks after the suicide of O’Connor’s 17-year-old son, Shane, “Nothing Compares” was completed before that tragic event. Yet it remains a rock doc steeped in pain. Just what was Sinead O’Connor screaming about? She is interviewed in the film off camera, her voice lower and gruffer than it used to be, and she talks about the childhood of staggering abuse she suffered at the hands of a mother she describes as “a beast.” The abuse was mental, physical, spiritual. As a girl, Sinéad would be forced to stay outside for a week at a time, which means that she was in the garden, alone, at night, in the dark, in the cold. Her attitude toward her mother’s cruelty is not forgiving.
Yet her vision of it is large. 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.
In addition to possessing a voice of sinuous power that could wind its way across a note to make it feel both caressed and pummeled, Sinéad O’Connor had the pop star’s gift for self-invention. As the documentary reveals, she shaved her head in a fit of rebellion after her record label demanded that she doll herself up, but that turned out to be a stroke of genius. Depending on your vantage, the shaved head made her look like Joan of Arc, an alien, a prisoner of war, a lobotomy patient, or all of the above. “People found it problematic,” recalls filmmaker John Maybury, “because they read the language of ‘skinhead’ into the shaved head. It suggested some kind of aggression. But actually, the beauty of her features, the quality of her eyes, created a fantastic contradiction.”
He’s right. The shaved head made O’Connor look all the more angelic, especially when she flashed that dimpled chipmunk grin. And that spoke to how her fury grew out of an agitated purity — an idealism about what she wanted Ireland, and the larger world, to be. She says that she saw Ireland, with its endless codes of decorum for women, and its draconian (at the time) laws governing contraception and abortion, as itself a kind of “abused child.” Her music was an intoxicating way of lashing out, but it was that insurrectionary impulse that gave her such power on stage.
If O’Connor had been born 10 years earlier, or in Manchester, England, she might have been a punk. But she forged her own sound: caterwauling dance pop with a glint of Enya. For someone as furious as she was, and as subversive of conventional gender images, she allowed a breath of romance into the equation — it’s there in the raw erotic hunger with which she sings “I Want Your (Hands on Me).” And then, of course, there is “Nothing Compares 2 U,” the song, written by Prince, that came to define her, even though nothing in her canon compares to it.
The Prince estate did not allow the song to be used in “Nothing Compares,” so aside from a few suggestive chords we have to imagine it. But, of course, half the revelation of the song was the video — probably one of the 10 greatest music videos ever made. Sinéad’s face stares into the camera, stares at the audience, hypnotizing us with her heartbreak. And what she’s singing may be the most dangerous thing a raging activist rocker with a shaved head could imagine: that in this world, nothing — nothing! — can compare to you. Is there a more haunting definition of love? That O’Connor could sing this so transcendently, could mean it so fully, is what made “Nothing Compares 2 U” one of those songs that owned the world.
The song took her to a new level, and it was being up there in the stratosphere that gave her the license to do what came next. She radicalized herself, as if her career were now an act of purification. The film chronicles her headline-grabbing controversies, like refusing to perform at a stadium in New Jersey, in the midst of the Persian Gulf War, unless they agreed to forgo the playing of the National Anthem (Bob Guccione Jr., then the editor of Spin, calls that “the wrong time, the wrong place, the wrong way to throw a tantrum”). And then, of course, there’s the moment in O’Connor’s career that became as famous as the “Nothing Compares 2 U” video: Her Pope-bashing performance on “Saturday Night Live” on October 3, 1992.
That she began with an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” already made the performance seem like a stoic lecture. But when she tore up that photograph of Pope John Paul II, a photo that had hung in her mother’s bedroom, and said, “Fight the real enemy!” (because of the revelation that the Pope had offered protection to abusive priests), had she gone “too far”? Or as the documentary argues, was she a woman ahead of her time, parading a militance in the face of unspeakable corruption that presaged the spirit of our own era?
Watching the “SNL” performance in the film (the first time I’d seen it since it happened), my reaction to it hadn’t changed much: I felt like it was about injustice, about rage against the Catholic Church, but that more than any of those things it was about Sinéad O’Connor herself. It was the world’s angriest liberal-crusader Oscar speech. But that hardly means that she deserved to be ostracized by the media the way she was. We see her performing a few weeks later at Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, where she’s greeted by what she calls a nauseating mix of boos and cheers.
Today, a mass-media performance-art outrage like the one that happened on “Saturday Night Live” would probably have just added to her mystique. But as O’Connor declares in the movie, she has regrets but no apologies; she meant what she did, even if that meant getting knocked off her pedestal. She has made seven albums since then and toured extensively, but in terms of the fame by which the pop stratosphere defines itself, Sinéad O’Connor was a fire that went out too fast. “Nothing Compares” makes you see it’s still burning.