Doc Corner: The rockers of ‘Nothing Compares’ and ‘Sirens’ – Blog
By Glenn Dunk
the Showtime documentary Sinéad O’Connor, Nothing compares much like the artist herself, is at his best when thorny and confronting the harsh truths of the world. It’s less interesting when you conform to the now hackneyed standards of this subgenre, distilling information like a Wikipedia profile. The Irish singer, known for his shaved head and distinctively accented voice, has had a difficult life of struggle and heartbreak amid hit singles and critically acclaimed albums. In short, it is perfect for a documentary. Director Kathryn Ferguson and editor Mick Mahon find their strongest beats observing the singer’s career through the prism of her homeland and the tugs of Catholicism, which lingers over her music like a haunting specter…
Like many musicians, she broke through with a deeply personal yet accessible (if not exactly radio-oriented) album, The Lion and the Cobra. To this day, it remains enveloping and powerful. We see the rocky road that led to this record, released while she was pregnant much to the chagrin of her record company. She followed that up with another hit album and one song in particular, a cover of a Prince-penned track called “Nothing Compares 2 U,” which sent her into the stratosphere of pop stardom.
Most viewers of this movie (and many who will never watch it) surely know what happened next. At a time when many artists were pushing the boundaries of what they could and couldn’t get away with (Madonna, Janet Jackson, the booming rap industry), the Sinéad Company found an answer to what and that was too far. I almost have to admire Nothing compares for not once getting into a conversation about “cancel culture” when it very easily could have been when she was booed in Madison Square Garden.
O’Connor’s crime wasn’t comparable to Madonna provocatively writhing in bondage couture or NWA telling us to “fuck the police.” These were artists who gave their fans exactly what they wanted and did it with a wink, ultimately engaging as much (if not more) than they violently repelled. When she tore up a photo of Pope John Paul II on saturday night live and told the American people to “fight the real enemy”, she had neither the sense of humor nor the excess of personality to soften it, nor a fiercely devoted fanbase to fall back on. She became a victim of a society that was unprepared to face the evils of the Catholic Church. And even if they were, they weren’t so in love with his that his career could withstand the fallout.
She rarely offered concessions to the public either. She continued to make music, though only her stellar 2000 album Faith and Courage would approach the genre of her commercial she had found success with earlier. It’s this friction that’s so interesting about her (though as an aside, have you heard her cover of “I Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” from the You’ve got mail soundtrack? That’s sublime). Nothing compares makes repeated efforts to vouch for O’Connor’s rightful prominence and influence, but sadly stops short of really showing it beyond a short edit and long arcs shot at the protests of Trump of 2017.
Nothing compares doesn’t mention much of this post-pope work and doesn’t navigate too forcefully the many extremely fascinating avenues his life has taken. His conversion to Islam. His relationships with other musicians like Prince and Miley Cyrus. Perhaps intentionally, there is no mention of his later battles with sanity. But given everything that preceded these issues, it’s hardly surprising. In a film that ostensibly shows what the industry has too often done to female artists like her, it’s a curious omission.
Ferguson, making his feature debut here, stumbles all too conveniently on more basic storytelling modes. Maybe it’s out of respect? It’s a shame for whatever reason, because the parts here so interesting all seek to underline how tired the standard format of a musical biography has become. Sinéad O’Connor deserves something stronger. That Prince’s estate didn’t offer the production the rights to use “Nothing Compares 2 U” begs to open up a whole avenue of questioning about the poisonous core of an industry that rarely takes and gives back. Instead, he’s not mentioned, which feels like a metaphor for a movie that’s doing well but missing so much.
by Rita Baghdadi Sirens has no central musician as famous as Sinead. Instead, he has Lebanese band Slave to Sirens which is apparently the first all-female metal band in the Middle East. The more you know! In this high-energy but surprisingly understated film, we watch the bandmates struggle with just about everything you’d expect from such an outfit on their shoulders. This is only Baghdadi’s second film after the very different My country is no more and with it she cut an entertaining, if modest, film about female friendship under pressure and a film about the desire for musical fame like there had been too many before.
Of course, the very point of Sirens is that Slave to Sirens aren’t the kind of band you normally see in a documentary about a heavy metal band hitting the road. It’s Spinal Tap it’s not. Based in Beirut, they perform in mostly empty venues on tours that get them nowhere, navigating the toughest sex paths instead of drugs and alcohol and becoming sex gods. In Shery Bechara and Lilas Mayassi, Baghdadi finds two compelling people for reasons one wouldn’t expect from just looking at them.
At just 80 minutes, some of the drama is less deeply examined than you’d expect. The addition of the Port Explosion of 2020 is also a curious addition. But the ending is particularly sweet as they carve out a place for themselves in a world that would rather see them as dainty pop darlings than hardened rockers. This band clearly feels the music deeply, and what we see from their performances is captivating even for non-metalheads.
Exit: Nothing compares is on Showtime and available for purchase on Amazon. Sirens is in limited version.
Reward Opportunities: Nothing compares is probably the most likely to get awards attention, though I think it would have done better at the Emmys. Its accompanying limited theatrical release suggests they’re aiming for the Oscar.