Thirty years later, it's the sound of silence that resonates. On Oct. 3, 1992, Sinéad O'Connor, stood center stage in Studio 8H, the longtime home of Saturday Night Live, singing a haunting a capella rendition of Bob Marley's classic protest song, "War." As the Irish singer-songwriter approached the final notes, she held up a picture of Pope John Paul II — whose neglect of child abuse scandals within the Catholic Church and defense of Ireland's harsh abortion laws had been angering her for some time.
Looking directly into the camera in a tight close-up, O'Connor tore up the pontiff's picture, which belonged to her late mother, and threw the pieces onto the stage. "Fight the real enemy," she said defiantly, as the telecast cut away to a wider shot of the empty. In the deep and prolonged quiet that followed, O'Connor calmly took off her headset, blew out the candles that flickered next to her and exited the stage for her dressing room.
That footage is prominently featured in Nothing Compares, Kathryn Ferguson's new documentary about O'Connor that premieres Sept. 30 on Showtime — almost 30 years to the day of her second and final SNL appearance. And the film makes the case that the silence was the calm before the storm that nearly ended her career. "It was like a canceling," the director tells Yahoo Entertainment about the fallout over O'Connor's on-air protest. "I would say that she's one of the first female superstars that was really canceled, which is harrowing when you look back on it."
Watch a clip from Nothing Compares below
As recounted in the documentary, O'Connor was actually in high spirits when she left the stage. "She was so happy," Elaine Schock, the musician's publicist at the time, remembers. "She had pulled this off. I had gone into the dressing room after her, and I said 'I can't get you out of this.' And she said, 'You know what? I don't want you to.'"
In her 2021 memoir, Rememberings, O'Connor also commented on the quiet that enveloped the studio. "When I walk backstage, literally not a human being is in sight. All doors have closed. Everyone has vanished. Including my own manager, who locks himself in his room for three days and unplugs his phone." But in that silence, O'Connor also admitted to feeling a sense of victory. "A lot of people say or think that tearing up the pope's photo derailed my career," she wrote. "I feel that having a number-one record derailed my career and my tearing the photo put me back on the right track. I had to make my living performing live again. And that's what I was born for. I wasn't born to be a pop star."
Ferguson says that O'Connor remains unapologetic three decades later. "As she says herself, it's the proudest thing she ever did. It was so bold and brave, and I also think because of where it happened — on Saturday Night Live — it was so unexpected. It created such tremors across society because everyone was just so shocked."
In the immediate aftermath of O'Connor's performance, NBC's phone lines were ringing off the hook as angry viewers called in to condemn her actions, and network spokespeople joined in the chorus of disapproval as well. Even the show's cast members didn't have her back. Appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman days after the telecast, the late Phil Hartman also said that he was "hurt and offended" and blamed O'Connor for "kill[ing] the comedy on that show in the last half-hour." When Goodfellas star Joe Pesci hosted SNL the following week, he took time out of his opening monologue to hold up a taped-together picture of the pope and said he would have given O'Connor "such a smack."
Seen again today, Ferguson says that those kinds of violent reactions are almost more shocking than O'Connor's own actions. "I've been in audiences [for Nothing Compares] where you can hear the gasps at the backlash," she notes. "How people thought they could talk about her and mock her is way more disturbing than anything she did."
Far from calming down, the furor only intensified over the next few weeks, with O'Connor and her creative team receiving multiple death threats as her multiplatinum records were crushed by a steamroller in Times Square. The precariousness of her career was on full display at her next major public performance: Bob Dylan's 30th Anniversary Concert, held at Madison Square Garden on Oct. 16, 1992.
Introduced by Kris Kristofferson, the singer was supposed to perform "I Believe In You," but the reaction of the crowd made that impossible. "The audience started making this mad noise where half of them are booing and half of them are cheering," O'Connor remembers in Nothing Compares. "It's the f***ing weirdest noise I've ever heard in my life and it makes me want to puke."
Encouraged on by Kristofferson — who returned to the stage to tell her "Don't let the bastards get you down," — she instead performed a reprise of "War" as the audience continued to try and shout her down. Walking shakily offstage, she leans heavily on Kristofferson in a clear sign that being the focus of so much controversy had taken its toll. "You can just see all of it across her face and it's so bloody sad," Ferguson says now. "It was a horrendous thing to have happen."
O'Connor eventually emerged on the other side of her "canceling," although her career was never quite the same — at least in America. But the causes that spurred her to rip up the pope's picture have seen major victories. Prior to his death in 2005, John Paul II apologized for the church's abuses of children — a message that's been repeated by his successors. And in 2018, the Irish public voted overwhelmingly to overturn the nation's abortion ban in a referendum.
And, for the record, other artists have since used the SNL stage to advocate for their own beliefs without facing the same blowback that O'Connor experienced. Following her performance on the show's Season 46 premiere — which aired on Oct. 3, 2020, exactly 28 years after O'Connor's episode — Megan Thee Stallion ended her performance of "Savage Remix" by flashing the message "Protect Black Women" on the studio's screens. Ferguson stops shot of saying that moment was directly inspired by O'Connor, but also feels the implicit connection is clear.
"Her actions created such an earthquake, I can't see how it hasn't in some way trickled down," the director says. "She's meant so much to so many as this figure of boldness who speaks truth to power." For Ferguson, the clearest sign that O'Connor won the war — if not the battle — is that a poster for Nothing Compares now adorns a billboard in Times Square, where her records were steamrolled three decades ago. "You can get your boots that her image hasn't been in Times Square since that point. And now there she is: the phoenix rising from the flames is up on a massive billboard."
O'Connor's SNL appearance provides the climax of Nothing Compares, which primarily covers the genesis of her career. "It's very much focused on a five-year period," Ferguson explains. "I wanted to keep it immersive and have you be there with her as she's going through all of this stuff in that timeframe." To that end, the film consists entirely of archival footage, with the director's recent interviews with O'Connor and other subjects playing in voiceover. "We used voiceover to keep you in that era — that way you can hear what Sinéad has to say without her being interrupted."
Ferguson says that her on the record conversation with the singer lasted over the course of one long weekend in 2019, just before the coronavirus pandemic forced the production onto video calls. "She gave a fantastic interview with great clarity and honesty," she remembers. "We ended up using nearly every second of the interview because so much of it was gold."
One conversation that Ferguson chose not to have with O'Connor involved her working relationship with Prince, who wrote one of her biggest hits, "Nothing Compares 2 You." (Her stirring performance of the song is immortalized in what's widely considered to be one of the best music videos ever made.) Over the years, she's offered differing accounts of their collaboration, writing most recently in Rememberings that she had to flee his Hollywood mansion in the middle of the night after an impromptu pillow fight. (Prince died in 2016.)
While footage of the Nothing Compares 2 You music video is seen in the documentary, the Prince estate declined to license the song for the film, which Ferguson chose to see as a "fantastic creative challenge" to refocus the narrative on the song's personal meaning to her subject. "She was thinking about her mother when she's crying in the video, so we needed to include that and were granted access to the rushes of the video," she says, adding that was the extent she intended to address Prince. "We had no intention to discuss it at all."
Since the period covered by Nothing Compares, O'Connor, now 55, has continued to release albums — her 11th studio album, No Veteran Dies Alone, is due out sometime this year — and redefine her public image. In 2018, she converted to Islam and changed her name to Shuhada' Sadaqat. (She continues to perform and record music by her birth name.) When Nothing Compares premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, O'Connor suffered a devastating personal loss when her son, Shane, died in an apparent suicide and the singer herself was hospitalized.
Ferguson understandably declines to discuss the singer's public struggles. (She also declines to comment on O'Connor's conflicting 2021 statements about whether or not she's retiring from music.) "I do know that she's been supportive of the film," she says, adding that she's not certain that O'Connor has viewed the final cut. "She's been posting lots and lots about the film on Facebook and we're delighted to see that."
Ferguson says that she'd also be delighted to continue to tell O'Connor's life story across multiple documentaries. "She deserves ten documentaries! She's onto her 11th studio album, and it may not be [matching] the commercial success of her earlier albums, but he's certainly been making the music that she's set out to do. There's a lot of films to be made about her: she's iconic."
"What I hope and what I'm finding again at these screenings is that I'm getting all of these 15-year-old girls coming up with their eyes flashing at the end of the screenings," Ferguson continues. "Showing somebody as bold and brave as Sinéad maybe inspires them to keep fighting the good fight."
Nothing Compares premieres Sept. 30 on Showtime