O’Connor found success quickly. She had that extraordinary voice, with impeccable clarity and the ability to go from a whisper to a shout while staying in key. And she had that instantly iconic appearance, the androgynous contrast between her shaved head, leather jacket, and boots and her mesmerizing, long-lashed eyes.
She also became pregnant at 20, just as her album was released. The discussion of the label’s response to her pregnancy and the design of the album cover(s)—a less confrontational version for the U.S.—is one of the movie’s most powerful revelations.
This is not the typical “behind the music” documentary. It does not aspire to be comprehensive either as biography, as an overview of an entire artistic career, or as cultural commentary. There is no effort to cover O’Connor’s marriages, religion, name changes, her mental illness challenges, or even the last 11 albums she has produced. The focus is on what will be the first line of O’Connor’s obituary: on “Saturday Night Live” she sang a Bob Marley song about racism with lyrics based on a speech to the UN by Haile Selassie. And then she held up a photograph of the pope and tore it in half. The film reveals, as O’Connor did in her memoir, that her reason was as personal as it was political; that was the photograph that was on the wall of her mother’s home.
It caused a furor. The audience applauded when subsequent SNL host Joe Pesci says he would have smacked her. “Saturday Night Live” also had Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra calling Jan Hooks as O’Connor a “bald chick.” Radio stations swore never to play her music again, and protests included a bulldozer running over O’Connor’s CDs.
Director Kathryn Ferguson and her co-writers Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie want us to think about the way O’Connor’s influence is reflected in today’s outspoken female performers, a legacy they consider more significant than the Prince song about lost love. A compilation of quick clips at the end is not entirely persuasive about O’Connor’s impact, but her story and her voice are impact enough.
Premiering on Showtime on September 30th.