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SUNDANCE 2022 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: Nothing Compares

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- Kathryn Ferguson’s functional, if hardly revelatory, documentary pretty much repeats what you already know about Sinéad O’Connor

Review: Nothing Compares

Days after she tore up the picture of the Pope, Sinéad O’Connor was booed at Madison Square Garden. Introduced as an artist whose name “became synonymous with courage and integrity”, she was just standing still, staring at the half-welcoming, half-hostile crowd, weighing up her options. If anyone had ever thought about shooting her biopic, there would be no better place to start than this concert in 1992: the very moment when an unlikely pop star clashed with an activist and had to choose whether to be one or the other. Then again, Kathryn Ferguson got there first, with Nothing Compares, now screening in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at Sundance.

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This engaging scene, culminating later on in a big, comforting hug from Kris Kristofferson – as everything always should – actually sums up the biggest problem with her first feature-length documentary, named after the song that, depending on whom you ask, made O’Connor or broke her, at least for a while. It’s fun, it’s dramatic, but you already know the story. You know about the controversies, her relationship with the church, and you certainly know about the music video for “Nothing Compares 2 U”, those famous tears streaming down her face. According to I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, director John Maybury credited “the plate of onions”, while O’Connor herself claimed that she was thinking about her late mother. Anyway, you just know. And chances are, you won’t learn anything new.

This is especially noticeable given that O’Connor has recently made the headlines again, sadly, because of a personal tragedy and an alleged hospitalisation that followed. None of these events are addressed here, understandably, but you can’t help but feel that once again, it’s all about her well-documented past, not her present.

Even though Ferguson tries to cover a big chunk of O’Connor’s life, the film still feels like a sketch. It might be because there is no real revelation or because it swerves a bit into the direction of The New York Times’ Britney Spears documentary. Ferguson could have been trying to start her own “Justice for Sinéad” movement, pointing out how the media (and misogynistic journalists) have done this woman wrong. People who used to comment on her looks or “erratic” behaviour don’t come off particularly well today – and that’s satisfying – but the refrain of “shut up and sing” feels upsettingly familiar, brought back after country band Dixie Chicks spoke out against then-president George W Bush, for example. If you don’t, you will be publicly shamed – then and now. At least in O’Connor’s case, she had already shaved her head by that time, saving everyone some time.

Ferguson doesn’t shy away from all that nastiness (“In her case, child abuse was justified,” says someone here, as if anticipating the invention of Twitter), and she takes time to show what made the singer, be it an abusive childhood with an unstable parent or Ireland’s complicated relationship with religion. “I just wanted to scream,” says O’Connor – and scream she did, her look still as striking today as it was back then, with artists like Peaches commenting on her “non-binary attitude”. Nothing Compares might not win too many points for originality, but at least it’s a reminder that there is something really wonderful about the Non, je ne regrette rien attitude. And that when others claim that by making a stand you can irrevocably derail your career, you can actually see it as something that will put you right back where you belonged.

Nothing Compares was produced by Tara Films and Ard Mhacha Productions.

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