Sinéad O'Connor "refused to play the game": "Nothing Compares" filmmaker on the bold non-conformist

Kathryn Ferguson spoke to Salon about exploring the reluctant pop star and the media's brutal treatment of her

Published October 2, 2022 3:30PM (EDT)

Sinéad O’Connor performing in Dublin at the Olympic Ballroom in 1988, as seen in "Nothing Compares" (Independent News and Media/Showtime)
Sinéad O’Connor performing in Dublin at the Olympic Ballroom in 1988, as seen in "Nothing Compares" (Independent News and Media/Showtime)

Sinéad O'Connor's success as a Grammy award-winning singer-songwriter — she had a worldwide No. 1 hit with her 1990 song, "Nothing Compares 2 U" — is often overshadowed by her controversies. During her years in the spotlight, she refused to perform at a concert in New Jersey when the National Anthem was played and drew ire for that. More famously, she ripped up an image of the Pope on "Saturday Night Live" in 1992, which created a scandal.

"We need more Sinéads today, causing trouble and kicking the door down. She's brave, bold, and unbelievably talented."

Kathryn Ferguson's engaging Showtime documentary "Nothing Compares" focuses on O'Connor's early years and her career, which largely imploded after the "SNL" appearance. Ferguson's film is neither a hagiography nor bid for O'Connor's martyrdom; rather, it shows how the singer-songwriter and agitator/activist was largely ahead of her time in using her celebrity calling attention to issue. O'Connor repeatedly spoke out about child abuse and the Catholic church, racism, women's rights and abortion, as well as her attitudes about the recording industry. 

In the film, O'Connor is seen only in video clips from performances and past interviews, save one contemporary scene at the end of the documentary. Her softspoken demeanor off-stage belies her powerful voice on stage. Ferguson emphasizes this duality throughout the documentary, especially as O'Connor is treated in the media which focuses almost more on her shaved head and look than her music or her politics. 

Ferguson chatted with Salon about "Nothing Compares" and the life, career, and legacy of Sinéad O'Connor.

Many of the interviews and footage in your documentary are quick to define Sinéad O'Connor. People describe her as having "courage and integrity," others remark on her voice, which "stops you in your tracks." Still others comment on her looks or express their anger and want her to "go home." How would you describe Sinéad O'Connor?

On a personal level, she epitomizes bravery and anti-establishment principles. I think she was 30 years ahead of her time, to her detriment. I think she has an incredible legacy that inspires younger generations today. We need more Sinéads today, causing trouble and kicking the door down. She's brave, bold, and unbelievably talented.

Did she have any creative control/consent/input in the film? What was her reaction and how much cooperation did she have with this project?  

She happily participated in the exclusive interview that was the narrative backbone for the film. But as this was not a biopic, by any means — she didn't ask us to make the film. This was a film I was very passionate to make. It was a director and film team driven film, not one Sinéad wanted, or was asking to have made. Her involvement was really around the interview itself, and fundamentally she gave the film her blessing. It was not a creative process back and forth. 

What your film gets across is how Sinéad is a truth-teller. And she is true to herself. If you look at her lyrics for "The Emperor's New Clothes" they are quite revealing. "I will live by my own policies," along with, "You asked for the truth, and I told you." You show her as someone who stands by her actions. Your film is not a hagiography, but it does vindicate her to an extent. Can you talk about your goal in telling her story and telling it now?

"Today we are used to our pop stars using their platforms, but at that point, the sex scandal in the Catholic church was not a conversation people wanted or were ready to have."

It's a film I was trying to get off the ground for 10 years. It felt urgent. So much was happening in the world in 2018, particularly around gender equality and revisionist women's voices bringing stories to life. And, as an Irish woman, Sinead's story wasn't being discussed — how she used her voice and her power during this very specific time period, 1987-1993. I felt it needed to be look at again and reevaluated, as many incredible female stories were. It took four years to bring it to life. We had no funding or backers and we had to convince them that this was a film that needed to happen.

I appreciated that you showcased O'Connor's voice in the film. This was done not just in her performances, but in the video clips of interviews, or narrative voice-over. We do not see her as she is now until the last scene. I get the film is focused on her career until 1992; I'm asking more about how you selected the clips you did and assembled her story showing her voice as a singer and an activist. Can you talk about your decisions on how you presented her? 

We never set out to do a biopic, it was meant to be hyper-focused on this particular chapter in her life, which informed the clips we used and how we gathered up the archives in the film. The critical component was voice, her telling her story in her own worlds. The interview was from the end of 2019. That was key — for someone I feel was reduced in the last 30 years and mocked, it was very important to me that her voice was the key character in the film and drives the narrative to the end. The interview we did was the key interview, and it was supported by multiple other recent interviews. And when it is not, she is seen speaking on talk shows or being interviewed on TV shows. 

I liked the clips of her on Ireland's "The Late Late Show" and the host is so condescending. It shows they didn't know what to do with this woman who had the voice of an angel and the look of a skinhead.

It was very patronizing, but I think it was that exact contradiction that thrilled all of us young Irishwomen when we saw her on "The Late Late Show," like an alien arrived from outer space in the late '80s. We all fell in love with her. She was wildly unique. 

Your film shows how important she was for Irish women. She is counterculture, but also not.

That is what is so fascinating about her — her counterculture in her attitudes and beliefs, and her storytelling in some ways. "The Lion and the Cobra" is definitely punk in some parts. But she transcends the counterculture to become one of the biggest commercial pop stars in the world. That's what made her very different. She didn't stay in the counterculture. 

She didn't set out to do that. 

She was a reluctant pop star. As she says herself, she didn't set out to have that career. She wasn't as devastated as everyone else when it all broke down. It wasn't her intention to ever be a pop star. When there was the backlash and the commercial side of her career broke down in 1992, it wasn't the loss of that side of her career that upset her. She was completely counterculture and got absorbed and accepted and became an icon across the world. We saw [Sinéad's rise and fall] from our perspective in this country and we know in the States that she was huge, but trying to pitch the film, we were astounded by how many fans she had in every single country. Something about Sinéad made a hell of an impact in 1990. It was hard to forget her. She is a global icon. There are not many artists with her background you can say that about. 

What responsibilities do you think an artist has when they are given a platform where they can make a statement, or call attention to issues of racial or social injustice? Could Sinéad have made the points she did more effectively? She's very inspiring at women's protest marches, for example. What observations do you have about her agitation and activism, which was very often a source of controversy? I loved her line about being a seed being buried. It took 20 years for people to create the change she was speaking out about back then.

I think she would say she did go about them the best way, particularly "Saturday Night Live." She was just talking about very unpalatable issues at that time. Today we are used to our pop stars using their platforms, but at that point, the sex scandal in the Catholic church was not a conversation people wanted or were ready to have. The way she went about it was really shockingly brilliant maybe in some ways. It didn't do the commercial aspect of her career any good, but it made a hell of an impact and got a lot of conversations going on a subject that wasn't out for public consumption. I think she just used her platform fantastically. She wouldn't be told what to say or not say by anyone. As she says in the film, it was one of the proudest things she has ever done. Hats off to her for being brave enough to actually call it out.

After the "Saturday Night Live" incident, so much focus was on her action and her career imploding and less on the issue she was raising.

She definitely did appear on talk shows talking about the church scandal. She was brought on to discuss this as someone who has an opinion on it in the years that followed. The rest of the world started to catch up, and the conversation became larger and wider globally. But the violence against her for that action was so profound. That's one of the most shocking parts really, was seeing the backlash that occurred after "Saturday Night Live." 

I find it interesting that young people, 18– to 25-year-olds, were saying, "Anything I knew about Sinéad was that she was bad. I didn't know why she was bad, but I was told she was somehow bad." That was obviously coming down from their parents or older generations. They didn't know what she had done or why she was bad. And after they see the film, it makes sense why she's been presented in that way but seeing her bravery and how she used her voice, has been incredibly galvanizing to them as young generations. Her badness, her boldness, her voice is being translated into this galvanizing force for a young generation.

Nothing ComparesSinéad O'Connor photographed in 1988, as seen in "Nothing Compares" (Courtesy of Showtime/Andrew Catlin)

How much do you think her gender and appearance had to do with her perception? She chose having a child over a record. She was belittled for her look. Your film shows how she was beaten up when she was already fragile and wounded. Do you think the press and public were especially rough on her? 

She was a non-conformist, and that irked people. She refused to play the game — any game — for anybody. The satire from Sinatra, that was never what it was about for Sinéad. It was important to her that she used her voice, and she was heard. She felt as a child and teenager that her voice wasn't listened to. As an artist, she needed her voice to be heard, and that was what was driving everything she did. The way she looked, yes, it puzzled and irked people, but it was her non-conforming attitude that was the biggest stickler. The press did a fantastic job of reducing her and making her seem very flippant and issue-jumping. Going through 100 hours of interviews, she is rock solid in her message, and she rarely veers off her points for the last 30 years. In the press, she was painted as being very flippant and inconsistent and the trope of a "hysterical woman." It was used against her effectively. The press was very powerful in 1992, and we didn't have social media so if you weren't being talked about or interviewed you might as well be dead. She was one of the first superstars to be canceled.

Sinéad was in her 20s when she achieved superstardom after a turbulent childhood. How do you think she managed her professional success? Your film suggests as well as she could but also indicates she could have done better. 

The brutality and the treatment of her by the media, I don't know how anyone would come through that. It's shocking. As filmmakers, trolling through the articles and the headlines and the way she was discussed and spoken about was extremely reductive and brutal. I don't know how anyone, no matter how famous you are, could swim through that. It was brutal. Sitting with audiences in the cinema, you hear audible gasps when you get to the end of the film because it's frighteningly shocking how violent that reaction was against her — and completely absurd. And then the bit at Madison Square Garden why are these people booing her at a Bob Dylan concert?

Was she a sacrificial lamb? O'Connor was also willing to risk/jeopardize her career for what she believed in. You feature clips that emphasize that money and the recording industry were not why she performed. She was popular prior to social media which changed the landscape. The media castigated her. She was obviously, ahead of her time.

What is interesting with her is that she created enough of a rupture that has reverberated ever since and to so many young activists and women and communities that need it. It has affected people, even if it's not direct. What I really feel about her that is positive is that after this awful time, she records nine critically acclaimed albums. Yes, they may not be for mass consumption, and she's not appearing like she was at the height of her fame, but she's making music she loves and is proud of. She's a survivor and did manage to steer her own ship in the end and create the music she wants to make. She has a new album coming out in the next year and it may be her best yet. There are so many music docs particularly about women that are told through this tragic heroine lens, but I wanted to create something that maddens people and makes them angry but also is galvanizing. She didn't hang up her mic or stop her creating. It supercharged her and she was prolific with her creative output ever since. That is inspiring. She's hasn't sacrificed anything. She is "one strong article," as we would say in Ireland. 

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With the huge tectonic shifts that happened in Ireland in the last decade with equal marriage and abortion referendum, she has inspired the masses. She is an icon. There's a mural to her in central Dublin and it says, "Sinéad, you were right all along, we are so sorry."

"Nothing Compares" is available on Showtime streaming on Sept. 30 and premieres on Sunday, Oct. 2 at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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