O’Connor found success quickly. She had this extraordinary voice, with impeccable clarity and the ability to go from whisper to scream while staying in pitch. And she had that instantly iconic look, the androgynous contrast between her shaved head, leather jacket and boots and her mesmerizing eyes with long lashes.
She also got pregnant at age 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 divisive version for the US – is one of the film’s most powerful reveals.
It’s not the typical “behind the music” documentary. It does not claim to be exhaustive, neither as a biography, nor as an overview of an entire artistic career, nor as a cultural commentary. There’s no effort to cover O’Connor’s marriages, religion, name changes, mental health issues, or even the last 11 albums she 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 at the UN by Haile Selassie. And then she held up a picture of the pope and tore it in half. The film reveals, as O’Connor did in his memoir, that his reason was as personal as it was political; it was the photograph that was on the wall of his mother’s house.
It was furious. The audience cheered when the next SNL host, Joe Pesci, said he allegedly punched her. “Saturday Night Live” also had Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra calling O’Connor’s Jan Hooks a “bald chick”. Radio stations vowed never to play his music again, and protests included a bulldozer going over O’Connor CDs.
Director Kathryn Ferguson and her co-writers Eleanor Emptage and Michael Mallie want us to think about how O’Connor’s influence is reflected in today’s outspoken female performers, a legacy that they consider more important than Prince’s song about lost love. A compilation of quick clips at the end isn’t entirely convincing of O’Connor’s impact, but his story and voice pack enough punch.
Premiering on Showtime September 30.