Belfast-born director Kathryn Ferguson's new documentary on Sinéad O'Connor "Nothing Compares" aims to rescue O'Connor from the myths that still surround her.
“I'm a Belfast native, born and bred. I grew up in the '80s and '90s there and I discovered Sinéad's music through my dad,” Ferguson tells IrishCentral.
“I became a bonafide fan in the early '90s when her second album came out and I was in my early teens and I just found her absolutely fascinating.”
“She was like an alien that had arrived from outer space,” Ferguson continues. “She was exactly I think what we all needed as young Irish women, she was so anti-establishment and bold and her voice and her music was so brilliant.”
“But then I was very demoralized to see how she was treated, and to witness the backlash and the kind of takedown of this person that we all idolized. And that just really made a memorable dent in me. I would say so the seed for wanting to make this film and make it in the way that we did began way back then.”
Ferguson first met O'Connor in 2012 when they discussed her life and work. “I think when you watch the film now and see the sheer scale of the backlash she experienced particularly here in the United States in the early '90s - when we've shown clips of it in film festivals in the last seven months, people are left gasping in shock when they see the ferocity of it.”
In the film, O'Connor looks and sounds like the future moving through the present, embodying where we were all going, but not where most of us were yet. She paid a high price for her trailblazing, we are reminded. Would Ferguson agree that she was so far ahead of her time that we're only just beginning to understand just how important she was, in terms of her cultural impact?
“Absolutely. Here was an artist that refused to be silenced on any issue,” Ferguson continues. “With so many documentaries about famous female musicians, their stories are so often told through this tragic lens and I just desperately didn't want that to be the case for this.”
“I wanted it to be a film that leaves you furious. I want it to galvanize you to actually go out and do something creative yourself. And so far, that seems to be the general reaction to it. I keep getting lots of 15-year-olds coming up with their eyes flashing at the end of the screening saying 'God, we didn't know this, all we knew is that she was someone bad.' They didn't even know what why she was bad, or what she'd done. But she'd done something bad.”
“And that's how she'd kind of how she has been left for decades. As this footnote person, as a woman who did something bad. It's so fantastic to be able to flip that now and actually show the reality of what she did and what she said.”
“The sheer clarity of what she's saying back then is a surprise to so many now as well, because the media have done a fabulous job of painting her as very flippant and issue hopping and inconsistent. But I can tell you from going through literally hundreds of hours worth of footage, she's a solid as a rock, she doesn't veer off anything she believes in it, and the stuff she was talking about 30 years ago is the stuff she's still talking about today.”
In the documentary, O'Connor explains her views patiently and consistently, but it's often very clear that the interviewers are not listening to her. Instead of debating the issues, they debated her. Who did she think she was? Why did she look the way she did?
In one unforgettable scene, she appears at a Bob Dylan concert in Madison Square Garden to sing a birthday tribute, but the arena audience is so divided in their response to her appearance the set can't go ahead. With half of them jeering and the other half applauding it was one of the strangest moments in modern pop music.
“She was a huge threat to the establishment and that was one of the stories that hasn't been properly understood,” Ferguson concludes. “Her challenge, what she represented, was completely ahead of its time. It's time for a Sinéad O'Connor reevaluation and renaissance.”
"Nothing Compares" is now showing on Showtime and in cinemas.
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