In the Temple Bar section of Dublin, there’s a colorful mural that depicts one of the most important figures in Ireland’s cultural life of the past 40 years.
“Sinead, you were right all along, we were wrong,” reads the inscription. “So sorry.”
That’s the premise of “Nothing Compares,” a new documentary about Sinead O’Connor that premieres this weekend on Showtime. Director Kathryn Ferguson is a Belfast native who has been thinking about the unpredictable singer since her father introduced her to O’Connor’s earliest recordings in the 1980s, when Ferguson was a young girl.
In her hands, “Nothing Compares” zeroes in on the half-dozen or so years when the shaven-headed Dubliner’s fame and acclaim rocketed and then plummeted in shocking fashion.
Ahead of the Showtime rollout (available to stream for subscribers beginning Friday, premiering on the network at 10 p.m. Sunday), the film opened last week at select theaters in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for awards nominations.
“There are audible gasps when you see the backlash,” Ferguson said. “It’s really shocking, still.”
But as the film attests, O’Connor was ahead of her time, and not just in terms of her denunciation of the Catholic Church. She was transparent about her struggles with mental illness before discussion around the topic moved beyond stigma toward compassion; and she used a kind of performance art to express her convictions in ways that have been handed down to riot grrrls, feminist activists, and the anti-Putin provocateurs in Pussy Riot.
“Her name has become synonymous with courage and integrity,” says Kris Kristofferson at the outset of the film. It’s a clip from Bob Dylan’s 30th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden, in 1992.
O’Connor had been scheduled to perform Dylan’s “I Believe in You,” but the cruel reaction of the crowd — just two weeks after the infamous “Saturday Night Live” appearance in which she tore up a photo of the pope — convinced her instead to sing a defiant a cappella version of Bob Marley’s “War.”
That song, based on a speech given by the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie at the United Nations, was about a just response to racial discrimination. O’Connor adapted it (as she had on “SNL”) as a protest against the sexual abuse of children in the Catholic Church. It was a topic that much of the world was not quite ready to broach.
“On so many levels, she was so ahead of her time,” Ferguson said on a Zoom call. “She was very forward-thinking, but I suppose she was talking about very unpalatable things at the time.
“Today,” the director continued, “so many celebrities can all jump on the same bandwagon, but she really was on her own.”
As a young woman, Ferguson admired O’Connor for her blunt honesty and her moral compass.
“It was all the things we felt we couldn’t do as young Irish women at that point in the country,” she said. “I was really demoralized to see how she was treated.”
Years later, while working on an experimental short film as part of her master’s thesis at the Royal College of Art, Ferguson approached O’Connor for permission to use some of her music in the film. That led to Ferguson directing O’Connor’s first music video in years, in 2013, for the song “4th and Vine.”
Still, she wasn’t convinced the singer would approve of her pitch to make a documentary about her. She was thrilled, she recalled, when O’Connor essentially said, “OK, off you go. See if you can do it.”
As a commercial filmmaker, Ferguson has worked extensively in the world of fashion. The deeply researched archival footage that makes up almost all of “Nothing Compares” — there are no talking heads, only voice-over interviews with O’Connor and her friends, colleagues, and admirers — make clear just how much the camera adored O’Connor in her heyday, even if she was ambivalent about her own stardom. In the decades that have followed the period that Ferguson portrays, O’Connor has bounced from one record label to another, recording reggae and traditional Irish folk songs while engaging in various squabbles and retractions. (She never set out to be a pop star, the singer says in the film: “I just wanted to scream.”)
“I really wanted to keep it completely immersive, from a contemporary point of view,” Ferguson explained. “I wanted her to steer us to these events. The press has done such a fantastic job over the last 30 years of being reductive about what she has to say. I wanted her voice in this film to be the key thing you zoomed into.
“So much of the rhetoric around her is quite mocking,” Ferguson added. “I think in some ways I was just trying to put the story straight so people would understand a little better.”
The film has hit a nerve with audiences, Ferguson said — both in Ireland, where the marriage equality referendum of 2015 and the legalization of abortion three years later have contributed to “tectonic shifts” in the culture, as she puts it, and in America, where similar advances have been rolled back.
“I hadn’t planned it to be the kind of call to action that it seems to have become,” Ferguson said. “It seems to be causing a huge ruckus, which is brilliant. A lot of the screenings have been quite rowdy, in a good way.
“It just blows my mind that we’ve moved on so far out of the dark ages we were in,” she said of her homeland. “And it equally blows my mind what’s been happening in the States. I can’t fathom it. I think that’s maybe why the film is causing such a hoo-hah.”
Thirty years after she was effectively canceled in the music industry, O’Connor is now celebrated in Ireland as an important historical figure, Ferguson said.
“She created such a dent in our culture.”
The film ends with a recent performance on Ireland’s “The Late Late Show.” O’Connor sings her hymn-like ballad “Thank You for Hearing Me,” which runs through a litany of gratitudes before ambushing the listener: “Thank you for breaking my heart/ Thank you for tearing me apart.”
“I love that song,” Ferguson said. “That punch in the stomach you get in the end. That epitomizes Sinead — all of that beauty and then all of that rage. It feels like she’s personified in that song.”
James Sullivan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @sullivanjames.