Nothing Compares: Sinéad O’Connor, a patronising Gay Byrne, and the shock waves of that photo-ripping moment

Kathryn Ferguson builds her documentary around the night the singer tore up a photograph of John Paul II on US TV and sent a nation into paroxysms

Nothing Compares
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Director: Kathryn Ferguson
Cert: 15A
Starring: Sinéad O’Connor
Running Time: 1 hr 40 mins

If you are looking for someone to take Sinéad O’Connor to task, you have come to the wrong place. There are decades of tabloid headlines to do that for you. Kathryn Ferguson’s film doesn’t have a thesis exactly, but if it did — and, again, it doesn’t — it would be that O’Connor was right all along and many of us owe her an apology. But Nothing Compares is also here to celebrate a unique run in pop music. O’Connor’s recordings from 1987 to 1992 have — one unavoidable song aside — been unfairly overshadowed by the wave of controversy that reached its peak with her appearance on Saturday Night Live 30 years ago.

Ferguson, a gifted Belfast filmmaker, builds her documentary around that night, when O’Connor tore up a photograph of Pope John Paul II and sent the US into paroxysms unknown since John Lennon declared the Beatles “bigger than Jesus”. The shock waves reverberated here and contributed to the pause in her hitherto inexorable rise.

Ferguson takes a fluid approach to her montage, composing the film almost entirely of archival footage with new interviewees, O’Connor among them, appearing as audio alone, unaccompanied by talking heads. The effect is to thrust you back into an often grim period of Irish life. Gay Byrne does his best to be kind in Late Late Show interviews but now seems exhaustingly patronising.

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Elsewhere, other talkshow hosts appear absurdly bemused by her decision to leave the house with a shaved head. “It suggested some kind of aggression,” John Maybury, a video director, says. “But actually, the beauty of her features, the quality of her eyes, created a fantastic contradiction.” We hear about her abuse. We don’t hear much about her marriages. Her enormously engaging dry wit — a humour unique to Dublin, perhaps — keeps the film lively through its darker valleys. She is never painted as a mute victim. She remains an engaged presence.

Sadly, Prince’s estate refused the rights to the audio of Nothing Compares 2 U. That could have been a big problem, but her famous version’s status as the ghost that didn’t come to the feast adds mystery to an already hugely engaging film. For fans and the uninitiated alike.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist