Kathryn Ferguson tells AnOther about her new film, Nothing Compares, which charts the meteoric rise of a young Dublin woman who was revered to stardom but quickly reviled in exile
In 1992, Kris Kristofferson presented Sinead O’Connor on stage at a Bob Dylan 30th birthday concert. “I’m very proud to introduce this next artist,” he said. “An artist synonymous with courage and integrity.” She walked slowly across the stage as the crowd erupted in an overwhelming, jarring concoction of cheers and boos. “It was the weirdest fucking noise I’ve ever heard in my life,” says O’Connor, while narrating a new documentary about his life, Nothing compares. “It made me want to vomit.”
This event came just 13 days after its infamous Saturday Night Live appearance, in which she ripped a photo of the pope over an impassioned, impromptu version of War of Bob Marley, declaring “fighting the real enemy” to an audience full of people stunned into silence. This moment of protest, in response to child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is a defining moment in the film, which covers a six-year period (1987-1993) covering the meteoric rise of a young woman from Dublin to the pop star and activist who was revered in mega-stardom but quickly reviled in exile.
For director Kathryn Ferguson, whom we caught up with after the film’s European premiere at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen, O’Connor represented positivity growing up. “I was a bona fide fan,” she says. “I loved everything about her, what she stood for, her looks, her words, her boldness and what she meant to a young girl growing up in 80s and 90s Belfast. Things were to say the least. a little dark there, with the Troubles still brewing in the North and the Catholic Church still very influential in the South, she represented hope. We all needed it.”
In the context of contemporary popular music, where political statements are relatively common – often to the point of being performative, dishonest or a form of marketing manipulation – the film paints a very different landscape via the music industry of the 1990s. filled with coldness, hostility, rampant sexism and a cruel disregard for sanity; a time and place where talking about such horrific incidents, and since proven to be true, was not necessarily welcomed as brave or important, but often downplayed. “The media has always made me look like a lunatic,” O’Connor says in the documentary.
In the wake of the SNL moment Frank Sinatra and actor Joe Pesci both threatened physical violence against her, she was mocked in prime-time comedy sketches, including by Madonna, and her records were crushed by steamrollers at the Rockefeller Center headquarters of Chrysalis Records in New York. The deep-seated hatred towards her was such in some corners that an American television pundit shouted during an interview: “In the case of Sinéad O’Connor, child abuse was justified.”
The core of the film hits home the deeply fickle nature of fame and fame, and the sexist “stay in your lane” mentality that underlies much of it. In just two years, O’Connor went from being the hottest performer at the 1989 Grammy Awards to being ridiculed and lambasted by parts of that same audience. The whole world had fallen in love with a woman who shed a tear in the video for the global hit Nothing compares to 2 Ubut was quite indifferent to the reasons which may have caused it.
This all follows an extraordinarily tough life that O’Connor had already lived. Her voice became a crutch from an early age when she was abused by her mother at home. “I was able to soothe him with my voice,” O’Connor says. “I succeeded in putting the devil to sleep.” When she talks briefly about the song Troywriting about her childhood experiences of being locked out of the house and forced to sleep in the garden for weeks, she describes it as “not a song, it’s a fucking testament”.
The film explores how deep and multifaceted O’Connor’s traumatic experience from childhood was, which made his journey to pop stardom all the more difficult and often confusing. “The reason I got into music was for therapy,” she says. “That’s why it was such a shock for me to become a pop star. It’s not what I wanted. I just wanted to scream.
Things didn’t necessarily get any easier because O’Connor became a hit. Her records were banned from American radio stations when she took a stand against the broadcast of the national anthem during a concert in 1990. When she became pregnant at age 20, her label encouraged an abortion and refused to have her photographed in the press photos showing that she was pregnant. “It’s out of the question for me to keep my mouth shut,” she said. “I am a beaten child and the whole world will know it. As they will know for all the other battered children. They won’t be able to silence us just because they don’t want to hear about it.
O’Connor’s unwavering belief in her beliefs and the often unforgiving landscape she had to contend with cost her dearly, both professionally and personally, and Ferguson got to see it up close. “She never wavered,” she said. “We’ve watched hundreds of hours of footage and she’s one of the most consistent humans I’ve ever met. She’s rock solid.
From a shaved head to her distinct sense of fashion and the topics she spoke about with such passion, from child abuse to abortion rights, the film portrays O’Connor as a sort of prototype of the figure of the pop artist as an activist, paving the way for future generations of young women. Contributors such as Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill, Peaches and Skin from Skunk Anansie all consider her a trailblazer and an outlier.
“She was way ahead of her time,” Ferguson says. “And in many ways, an isolated voice – or certainly an unsupported voice. There seemed to be an overriding attitude that she should just shut up and sing. Here’s this superstar with seemingly everything – the talent, the looks, the success – but the fact that she also had a very strong point of view and wanted to be heard on nasty topics seemed like too much desire for some. . The film’s most poignant line comes from a defiant O’Connor herself who quietly but proudly declares, “They tried to bury me. They didn’t realize I was a seed.
The impact of O’Connor’s treatment reverberated and even shaped a young Ferguson herself. “I felt very demoralized when I was a teenager when I saw how she was treated,” she says. “I think that feeling planted the seed for this movie. It was bad in 1992 and I was still feeling the repercussions of it when we started writing the movie in 2018. I’m still furious about it and hope audiences feel the same.
Nothing compares will have its UK premiere and screen multiple times at Sheffield Doc/Fest from June 24-27, 2022.