A direct and intimate look at the turbulent life of Irish singer Sinead O’Connor.
For anyone with a passing knowledge of O’Connor’s work and what has influenced it – namely, the shocking abuse suffered at the hands of her mother and the Catholic Church’s role in that abuse – Kathryn Ferguson’s affecting debut may well feel familiar.
Bookended by an infamous appearance at a Bob Dylan tribute concert in New York in 1992, where O’Connor was booed and heckled – having ripped the Catholic Church to shreds on live TV just days earlier – Ferguson’s film wisely focuses on the singer’s formative journey and rise to fame, before it all came crashing down.
Aided by a series of montages featuring home movies and other historical footage, we see O’Connor escaping the suffocating clutches of the Church in Ireland – where women are constitutionally bound to remain at home – for a better, more liberating life in London’s Notting Hill. Basing herself between the Rasta and Irish communities, her visceral songwriting – and that remarkable voice – quickly lead to major label interest. By the time she’s 21, O’Connor is performing in front of Stevie Wonder at the Grammys and is on the front pages of the global music press.
Her appearances on primetime television at home – where she puts up with a painfully patronising line of questioning – only reaffirms to her (and us) why she must leave the archaic, god-fearing life in Ireland behind her. As we are reminded later, abortion is only legalized in 2015, almost 30 years after her label try (unsuccessfully) to force her to abort her own child for the sake of their cash investment.
Throughout, O’Connor resolutely remains true to herself, often in challenging circumstances, and at such a young age. She refuses to become the packaged pop singer her label wants. Her response: to shave her head. She scraps her debut album and recuts it from scratch. As her star burns ever brighter, and that infamous Prince cover becomes a mega global hit, she becomes more outspoken about the hypocrisy at home and ugly revelations about a pope and an institution that turns a blind eye to systematic abuse.
Which, of course, leads on to that incendiary moment on Saturday Night Live when, unbeknown to anyone but herself, she launches into a searing version of Bob Marley’s War before, literally, tearing the Pope to pieces before our very eyes. As Peaches, one of several figures interviewed in the film attests, the moment is pure performance art. Breathtaking in its fearlessness and sense of purpose, we discover it has been pre-planned: the papal photo, one of only two items taken by O’Connor from her late mother’s house, symbolizes her abuse and the regime that condones it. It remains one of the most exhilarating moments of live music television.
America’s predictable response – shock and outrage at such ‘heresy’ – ensures the superstar is soon banned by radio, blacklisted by promoters and trashed by the media. With nowhere to go but home, she retreats, for 10 long years, allowing, unfortunately, for the hoopla to all but consume her. A soothing coda cum requiem brings us up to date.
There are powerful moments throughout this likeable and very watchable film: from the carefully reconstructed scenes of her tormented youth – where her mother is barely seen but always felt – to the moment her music teacher discovers her talent and coaxes her to perform. Her former manager, publicist, band members and first husband, music producer John Reynolds, add to the candour. Which then abruptly ends as we zip rather too quickly through her third act and up to the present day.
Surprisingly, the ‘lost decade’ isn’t explored beyond a cursory note. We could have done, too, with a more rounded picture of her influence on today’s artists. And, of course, the horror of her son’s suicide – and her own fragility because of it – is far too recent to be able to feature here. Tonally, though, Ferguson’s film feels intuitive: frank and fierce when it needs to be, and melodic and empathetic throughout. Which for a trailblazer and survivor like O’Connor is exactly what one would hope for. An enriching experience.
Published 22 Jan 2022
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