Back to the beautiful fury of Sinéad O’Connor

Album covers were once legendary – they could etch the image of a musician forever in your mind. In “Nothing Compares”, Kathryn Ferguson’s incisive and poignant documentary on the life and career of Sinéad O’Connor, we see the image that was chosen in 1987 for the cover of O’Connor’s debut album, ” The Lion and the Cobra”. taken when she was 20 and pregnant: an extraordinary photograph of Sinéad in full cry. Let’s talk mythology! That’s how the album was released in Europe, but for us blind souls in America, the image was deemed too edgy. It was replaced by this wise plan of Sinéad looking down.

Sinéad O’Connor was far from the first pop star to shout (we can go back to the first rockers) or to howl with rage (John Lennon on “Plastic Ono Band”, a generation of punks). But as “Nothing Compares” shows you, and – it was her artistry – she was going to make it beautiful.

Premiering at Sundance tonight, just 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. What was Sinead O’Connor screaming? She is interviewed in the film off-camera, her voice lower and gruffer than she was before, and she talks about the staggering childhood abuse she suffered at the hands of a mother she described as “a beast”. The abuse was mental, physical, spiritual. As a girl, Sinéad was forced to stay outside for a week at a time, which meant she was in the garden, alone, at night, in the dark, in the cold. His attitude towards his mother’s cruelty is unforgiving.

Yet his vision is broad. From an early age, O’Connor felt she linked the domestic violence she suffered to the context that shaped it: the harsh punitive force with which the Catholic Church held Ireland in its grip. , the oppression that she says shaped her mother. , his mother’s mother, and so on, for generations. Early rock’n’rollers cast off the sexual shackles of Victorianism. By the time O’Connor arrived, this battle had been won, but she was shedding her own primitive shackles. And when you see her on stage in her earliest appearances, channeling her inner fury into a song like “Troy, or her triumph in the ecstatic “Mandinka,” you feel the catharsis. She had the rock alchemist’s gift for turning rage into excitement.

Besides possessing a sinuously powerful voice that could weave its way through a note to make it feel both caressed and hammered, 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 company asked her to doll herself up, but it turned out to be a stroke of genius. Depending on your position, the shaved head made her look like Joan of Arc, an alien, a prisoner of war, a brainwashed patient, or all of the above. “People found it problematic,” filmmaker John Maybury recalls, “because they read the language of ‘skinhead’ in the shaved head. It suggested a kind of aggression. But in fact, the beauty of her features, the quality of her eyes, created a fantastic contradiction.

He is right. The shaved head made O’Connor all the more angelic, especially when she flashed that dimpled chipmunk smile. And it shows how her fury was born out of a restless purity – an idealism about what she wanted Ireland and the world at large to be. She says she viewed Ireland, with its endless codes of propriety for women, and its (at the time) draconian laws governing contraception and abortion, as itself a kind of ‘abused child’ . His music was an intoxicating way to go wild, but it was that insurgent impulse that gave him such power on stage.

If O’Connor, who was born in 1966, had been born 10 years earlier, or in Manchester, England, she might have summer a punk. But she has forged her own sound: honeyed dance pop with a touch of Enya. For someone as furious as she was and as subversive of conventional gender images, she left a breath of romance in 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’s “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 didn’t authorize the song’s use in “Nothing Compares,” so aside from a few suggestive chords, we have to imagine it. But, of course, half of the song’s reveal was the video — probably one of the 10 greatest music videos ever made. Sinéad’s face stares at the camera, stares at the audience, mesmerizing us with her grief. And what she sings is perhaps the most dangerous thing a rabid 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 it so transcendently, could say it so fully, was 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 up there in the stratosphere that gave her the license to do what was to follow. She became radicalized, as if her career was now an act of purification. The film chronicles their headline-grabbing controversies, such as refusing to perform at a stadium in New Jersey, in the midst of the Persian Gulf War, unless they agreed to give up playing the national anthem (Bob Guccione Jr., then editor of Spin, calls it “the wrong time, wrong place, 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: his performance against the Pope on “Saturday Night Live” on October 3, 1992.

The fact that it opened with an a cappella rendition of Bob Marley’s “War” already made the performance feel like a stoic lecture. But when she tore up this picture of Pope John Paul II, a picture that hung in her mother’s room, 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, displaying an activism in the face of unspeakable corruption that presaged the spirit of our own times?

Watching the ‘SNL’ performance in the movie (the first time I’ve seen it since it happened), my reaction didn’t change much: I felt like it was injustice. , of rage against the Catholic Church, but that more than any of these things, it was about Sinéad O’Connor herself. It was the most angry liberal crusader Oscar speech in the world. But that doesn’t mean she deserved to be ostracized by the media or the public, like she was. We see her perform a few weeks later at Bob Dylan’s 30th birthday concert at Madison Square Garden, where she’s greeted with what she calls a nauseating mix of boos and cheers.

Today, a mass media performance art outrage like the one that occurred on “SNL” would probably have just added to its mystique. But as O’Connor states in the film, she has regrets but no excuses; she meant what she was doing, even if it meant getting knocked off her pedestal. She’s since released seven albums and toured extensively, but in terms of fame by which the pop stratosphere defines itself, Sinéad O’Connor was a fire that died out too quickly. “Nothing Compares” makes you see that it still burns.

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