Transforming Tragedy into Change

It takes a lot to recover from an unspeakable tragedy. Some of us, in fact, may never be able to rebound from the pain. However, one of the most effective and meaningful ways to recoup from such calamities is to turn those dire circumstances into impactful and lasting reform. That may not be easy to accomplish, and we could encounter countless obstacles along the way. But with faith, determination and conviction, we just might bring about the transformation we seek, an objective sought and achieved in the new fact-based historical drama, “Till” (web site, trailer).

In the summer of 1955, Black Chicago teenager Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) was looking forward to visiting his cousins (Marc Collins, Diallo Thompson, Tyrik Johnson) in the small town of Money, Mississippi. As a personable, gregarious young man, Till was well liked and enjoyed a fond following of friends and family. And, having been born and raised in the Windy City, he had grown accustomed to the relative freedom accorded to African-Americans in the North at that time. While discrimination and prejudice were certainly not unheard of in Chicago, these issues weren’t as blatantly apparent as in other parts of the country, such as the Jim Crow Era South, where Till was about to visit.

As he prepares for a trip to Mississippi to meet relatives in 1955, Chicago teenager Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall, left) unknowingly says goodbye to his mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler, right), for the last time in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s latest feature outing, “Till.” Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon, courtesy of Orion Pictures.

Given the stark regional differences in the treatment of Blacks at the time, Till’s mother, Mamie (Danielle Deadwyler), sternly cautioned her son about how to behave in Mississippi, especially in any dealings he might have with local White residents. She strongly encouraged him to “be small,” showing the accepted level of deference expected from Blacks living in a staunchly segregated society, where laws sanctioned and protected such pervasive separation. Having been born in the South herself, Mamie knew what the conditions were like, and she desperately tried to impress upon Emmett that life there was far different from what he was accustomed to. He repeatedly said that he understood, but Mamie had her doubts and never hesitated to reiterate her cautions before he departed.

Upon his arrival in Mississippi, as Till began to discover firsthand the impact of the cultural differences Mamie described, he found himself in an environment more restricted than he had anticipated. He toned down his openly easygoing ways to a certain extent, but he also bragged freely to his cousins and other family members about the freedoms he enjoyed in Chicago that were noticeably absent down South. And, unfortunately, that attitude would end up proving problematic.

While visiting a local grocer with his relatives one afternoon, Till made a purchase from the store’s White clerk, Carolyn Bryant (Haley Bennett), wife of the shop’s owner. He attempted to engage in a conversation with her, even paying her what he thought of as a compliment, a gesture she found highly offensive and wholly inappropriate coming from a young Black man. The incident quickly escalated, becoming decidedly intense and ending with Till whistling at Bryant, who saw his action as an insult that forced him and his cousins to hurriedly flee to safety.

Over the next several days, Emmett’s cousins feared for their relation based on what happened. However, with no immediate retaliation taken against him, Till felt secure that he was safe. That proved to be false comfort, though, when Bryant’s husband, Roy (Sean Michael Weber), and his half-brother, J.W. Milam (Eric Whitten), showed up at the family’s home in the middle of the night. They abducted Till, taking him away to be lynched. Emmett was mercilessly beaten and shot in the head, with his body dumped in the nearby Tallahatchie River. When his corpse surfaced three days later, it had become bloated and disfigured beyond recognition.

Chicago teenager Emmett Till (Jalyn Hall) boards a train for Mississippi and an unexpected destiny in the dramatic new fact-based offering, “Till,” now playing in theaters. Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon, courtesy of Orion Pictures.

When Mamie received word of what happened, it was her worst fear realized. She was devastated. And, while she received comfort and support from her fiancé, Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas), and her parents, Alma (Whoopi Goldberg) and John (Frankie Faison), Mamie was almost beyond consolation. However, despite such unimaginable despair, Mamie would not allow herself to retreat into her sorrow. She vowed to fight back, speak up and make the tragedy of her son’s murder known.

To begin with, Mamie insisted on an open casket funeral for Emmett. She wanted the world to see what the lynch mob had done to her son. Others tried to dissuade her, claiming that Emmett’s disfigured appearance would be far too grotesque and shocking, more than the public could bear. But Mamie said that a long-sleeping public had to witness the horrific treatment inflicted on Emmett and to be made aware of the atrocities that Blacks were routinely being subjected to. And, even though the wake and funeral were exceedingly painful for those who attended to pay their respects, they also praised Mamie for her decision because they knew it would change the minds of many. And, on top of that, an even wider audience was reached through the publication of photos of Emmett’s corpse in such outlets as The Chicago Defender newspaper and Jet magazine.

As tragic as this incident was, it marked a seminal moment in the emergence of the civil rights movement. It may have seemed somewhat unlikely that a loving and grieving mother could have assumed such an integral activist role, but Mamie could not let this situation pass unaddressed, trying though it may have been. She epitomized the notion of a pillar of strength at a difficult time, and she and her cause became even more empowered when infused with the backing of other outraged and committed civil rights activists like Medgar Evers (Tosin Cole), William Huff (Keith Arthur Bolden) and Rayfield Mooty (Kevin Carroll).

This support was particularly valuable when Bryant and Milam went to trial. Under the auspices of Judge Curtis Swango (Tim Ware) and tried by an all-White, all-male jury, the case skirted the core issues of the incident, with the defense raising all kinds of ancillary matters to deflect attention away from the perpetrators. The court also gave blanket credence to the testimony of Carolyn Bryant, whose account of the incident differed markedly from the depiction of what happened in the grocery store. Such tactics undoubtedly had to have been difficult for Mamie to endure, given that she was determined to testify in court that she could definitively identify the allegedly unrecognizable corpse as that of her son, one of the arguments widely touted by the defense team to rebut the charges against their clients.

In the end, Mamie and her supporters underwent tremendous heartache on so many fronts as this tragic story played out. But, despite whatever injustices may have been perpetrated at the time, one could argue that the long-term impact to emerge from this incident has indeed defied the axiom that “justice delayed is justice denied.” To be sure, justice may have truly been long delayed, but it eventually surfaced, first through the rise of the civil rights movement and later with the enactment of the Emmett Till Antilynching Act, which was signed into law in March 2022. It may have taken 67 years to see this outcome appear, but we can only hope that its eventual materialization has helped Emmett, Mamie and others rest a little more soundly.

Upon learning of the death of her son, Emmett Till, grieving mother Mamie Till Bradley (Danielle Deadwyler, right) seeks comfort from her fiancé, Gene Mobley (Sean Patrick Thomas, left), in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till,” now playing in theaters. Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon, courtesy of Orion Pictures.

It’s indeed tragic what happened to Emmett Till. No one should have to suffer the horrendous indignities he underwent at the hands of such vile individuals. But at least we can take solace that what came out of this atrocity had a lasting, meaningful impact for the nation’s oppressed and for society at large. And we have the efforts of determined, courageous individuals like Mamie to thank.

While Mamie was undeniably devastated by this tragedy, she believed that she could make something good come from it, something that proved to be both a fitting tribute to her son and an enduring benefit to society. And those beliefs were the key to the unfolding of these developments for they carried the power to bring them into being. Mamie may not have heard of this school of thought, but she was certainly adept at knowing how to get things done – and believing that the anticipated outcomes to emerge from those efforts were indeed attainable.

For instance, when Mamie saw Emmett’s mangled body, she knew that the sight of it would shock others as much as it did her. If that image weren’t revealed to the world, the impact of exposing it and what happened to her son would be lost. And, if changing the minds of the public was truly essential to help bring about changes in society, then this was a step that had to be taken, no matter how potentially gruesome and upsetting it might be.

Mamie knew all this but believed it was necessary. It had to have been a difficult decision to make, given that this was the sort of event that ordinarily would have been handled tactfully and discreetly. It was also a decision for which she risked considerable ridicule; openly displaying Emmett’s battered corpse might have easily been seen as inappropriate and possibly even exploitative. But, again, she knew that few acts would have as much influence as this one did.

Grieving grandmother Alma Carthan (Whoopi Goldberg) seeks to offer comfort and solace to her devastated daughter, Mamie, when she learns of her son’s death in the new fact-based historical drama, “Till.” Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures.

The same was true when it came to Mamie’s decision to testify at the trial of Emmett’s killers. Many believed that it wasn’t necessary to put herself through such pain and anguish, particularly in a court and locale where she would be openly subjected to blatant hostility. But she believed that, if there were any chance at obtaining justice for Emmett, she would have to do so, no matter how difficult that might be. Letting the defense team freely get away with spreading doubt about the legitimacy of Emmett’s corpse as a means to help let Bryant and Milam off the hook was patently unacceptable to Mamie, and she believed she had to do all she could to keep that from happening, regardless of the personal cost to her. And, even if she didn’t succeed in this effort, at least her testimony in open court would be established and on the record for the world to see.

Some may question how much genuine influence Mamie’s actions had on changing the course of race relations and the civil rights movement. And, admittedly, that may be something that’s hard to legitimately quantify. However, think of where matters might stand had it not been for the actions she took. Would we still be fighting for the gains we’ve made since that time if she had not undertaken those boldly courageous, personally painful measures? She believed change was indeed possible, even if progress is difficult and agonizing to achieve. But at least change was ultimately capable of being achieved. Circumstances today still may not yet be perfect, but they’re a far cry from what they once were, and there’s much to be said for that.

Aggrieved mother Mamie Till Bradley (Danielle Deadwyler) mourns the loss of her son to a Mississippi mob lynching but fights for the civil rights of minorities subjected to such atrocities in writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s “Till.” Photo by Lynsey Weatherspoon, courtesy of Orion Pictures.

It’s important to recognize that all of this came about because Mamie had faith in her convictions. That unshakable confidence in her beliefs and her stalwart adherence to them about what was not only imaginable but indeed truly possible carried her through those dark times. She set an inspiring example for those involved in the civil rights cause, as well as for anyone who holds a heartfelt commitment to the fulfillment of a particular objective. But that shouldn’t come as a surprise to any endeavor backed by a mother’s love, something Mamie had in boundless measure when it came to her son. Together they made for quite a duo, both in life and in death and in what they were ultimately able to achieve for the benefit of the rest of us.

Rarely does a film come along that captures and fuses feelings of outrage and heartache as effectively as “Till” does. Writer-director Chinonye Chukwu’s third feature outing breaks things wide open in her compelling take on the tragedy of this African-American teenager all those years ago. This fact-based offering vividly depicts the brutality and injustice of what happened (faint of heart viewers be warned) while simultaneously chronicling the efforts of Till’s courageous mother to protect and champion the civil rights of minorities. The picture illustrates how a fiercely loving and devoted mother forced a complacent public to see what was really happening – and creating a grass roots groundswell for change in the process. The film gets just about everything right (save for a musical score that doesn’t quite seem to align with the subject matter), including in the superb period piece production values, writing that fittingly captures the mood and themes of this story, and, most notably, the performances, particularly those of Oscar contender Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, Whoopi Goldberg and other cast members. This is a truly important film, one that genuinely lives up to all of its billing and as one of the best offerings of 2022. Look for it to be a strong candidate come awards season. The picture is currently playing theatrically. By all means, please see it.

Sadly, there’s no reversing what happened to Emmett Till. This barbaric atrocity, unfortunately, will always be etched in the nation’s history and consciousness. The heartache will indeed forever be there. But there’s nothing to stop us from working to bring about change as a result of such appalling incidents. Transforming tragedy into meaningful reform is possible, provided we believe in and work toward its manifestation. It’s by no means an acceptable substitute for what occurred, but it may help to ease the pain – and to help prevent such events from happening again.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

New Movies for November

Join Good Media Network Movie Correspondent Brent Marchant and show host Frankie Picasso for five new movie reviews on the next edition of the Frankiesense & More video podcast! The show, to begin airing at a special day and time, Thursday November 17 at 1 pm ET, will also feature a recap of the 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis Film Festival and a few additional special announcements. Tune in on Facebook or YouTube for all the fun and lively discussion!

Unscrambling One’s Motivations

Understanding what drives us is crucial to our success in life’s endeavors. But, if we truly wish to attain the goals we seek for ourselves, we need to grasp what impels us and the beliefs that underlie our ambitions. Should we fail on this point, we could end up with a mixed bag of results, some satisfying, some not. The process of unscrambling those motivations thus becomes integral to assessing and appreciating how matters turn out for us, a concept explored in the new dramatic character study, “Tár” (web site, trailer).

Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has made quite a name for herself. The internationally renowned conductor has taken the classical music world by storm, leading some of the globe’s most prestigious orchestras. She has also composed her own pieces, established initiatives to support world musicians and landed a position teaching aspiring conductors. In addition, Lydia has overseen the production of an extensive repertoire of recordings, most notably all but one of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. And, as her story opens, she’s preparing to complete the composer’s symphonic catalog, teaming up with the Berlin orchestra to record the final work, the Mahler fifth.

Lydia has established such a celebrated reputation thanks to her interpretation of the pieces she records and conducts. She has widely discussed how she seeks to express the transcendent language of music through her work, bringing about the feelings that music generates that can’t be adequately put into words. It’s a process that affects her deeply as she attempts to transform these emotions into tangible musical expressions that are meant to be felt and experienced, even if they are incapable of being described linguistically. It’s a way of looking at music that has set her apart from her peers, many of whom are in awe of what she has been able to accomplish in this regard, especially since they are fundamentally unable to re-create it themselves.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) has developed quite a reputation for herself as an esteemed interpreter of the transcendent language of music as seen in the dramatic new character study, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Lydia knows all this, too, and makes no particular effort to hide her self-awareness of it, well-practiced false humility notwithstanding. But, despite her efforts to maintain an agreeable, acceptable public image, Lydia quietly has earned a reputation as someone who gets what she wants, even if it sometimes calls for her to play the role of shark. This is true in both her professional and personal endeavors, too. If she needs to throw someone under the bus, she’ll do it. Of course, she’ll do whatever she can to cover her tracks or to put a good face on her actions. But those closest to her can see what she’s doing, and they’re not particularly approving.

For instance, when it comes to getting what she wants, Lydia frequently taps her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), to carry out her orders (i.e., do her dirty work for her), often with the vague promise of coveted rewards, many of which don’t materialize as hoped for. And, if a scenario calls for her own direct involvement, she’ll often seek to bring outcomes into being by tactfully manipulating others to her advantage, as she does through carefully coordinated interactions with orchestra peers like Sebastian Brix (Allan Corduner), Elliott Kaplan (Mark Strong), Andris Davis (Julian Glover) and Knut Braun (Fabian Dirr), many of whom don’t realize they’ve been railroaded until it’s too late.

The same is true in Lydia’s home life. Her long-time partner, Sharon (Nina Hoss), patiently dotes on her and cares for the well-being of their young daughter, Petra (Mila Bogojevic), keeping the household running while the maestra is away on her many business trips. Sharon is also a loyal, dutiful musical collaborator as the orchestra’s concert master (one can’t help but wonder how she landed that position), respectfully following all of her partner’s requests and commands in the concert hall. But, despite Sharon’s personal and professional devotion, it doesn’t stop Lydia from allowing her eye to wander, such as when a new cellist, Olga (Sophie Kauer), arrives on the scene. Lydia makes no attempt to conceal her attraction to the new girl in town, making things uncomfortable for both Olga and Sharon.

It’s not entirely clear why someone like Lydia, who potentially has so much to lose, could act so carelessly, callously and irresponsibly, but that’s who she is. Perhaps she feels a sense of entitlement for her many artistic achievements. Maybe her status as a celebrity and distinguished intellectual has caused her to lose touch with common courtesy and everyday etiquette. Or it just might be that she’s a self-centered, self-absorbed bitch. Whatever the case, though, it becomes apparent over time that she’s becoming increasingly oblivious to and detached from the practices of civilized behavior, as well as her connections to those whom she supposedly cares most about.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) leads the Berlin orchestra as she prepares to make a recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony as seen in writer-director Todd Field’s latest, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

It would seem that Lydia’s due for a healthy dose of comeuppance, and, if she doesn’t change her ways, it just might be in the offing. The likelihood of that significantly increases when implications surface that she may be connected to a tragedy involving an aspiring conductor, Kristin Taylor (Sylvia Flote). Suggestions of inappropriate classroom behavior with one of her conducting students (Zethphan Smith-Gneist) also emerge, thanks to the release of an edited, albeit damning online video. And all of this comes just as Lydia is embarking on a promotional campaign to promote a new book and to lead the performance where the Mahler symphony will be recorded.

Will everything at last come crashing down on the celebrated prima donna? Or will she yet again figure out how to wiggle her way out of her circumstances? Payback can indeed carry a high cost. Is she prepared to pay it? Or will she need to find a new way to “conduct” herself? The irony of that may be lost on her, but it may provide her with an opportunity to learn a valuable life lesson – one for which she’s long overdue.

Many viewers (myself included) are likely to be somewhat puzzled by Lydia’s behavior. How could someone who has so much to lose so recklessly jeopardize everything she has worked so hard to build? It just doesn’t seem to make sense. But, then, perhaps that’s the point in a nutshell – how can someone who is supposedly so learned and erudite simultaneously be so incredibly short-sighted and stupid? One could say that this film goes a long way toward proving that you can be well educated and still not know anything at all.

The key in this, of course, is unlocking the nature of Lydia’s beliefs, for they ultimately shape the nature of the existence she experiences. It’s apparent that Lydia may not be well versed in this school of thought – or even precisely what her beliefs are to begin with. But, then, that would help to explain the contradiction that exists between what she thinks she should seek to achieve and what actually results. The surprises that occur truly seem to baffle her, but, considering the belief standpoint from which she operates (and her lack of knowledge thereof), this really shouldn’t be dumbfounding, at least to anyone who has enough cognizance to recognize the intentions that are being put forth and what eventually results from them.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett, foreground) works with her new cellist, Olga Metkina (Sophie Kauer, background), in developing more than just her musical abilities in writer-director Todd Field’s dramatic new character study, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

Lydia’s biggest error in this is that she appears to be concerned more with the outcomes she wants than with any of the consequences that can result by not adequately thinking things through, by embracing manifesting beliefs with due consideration for the sought-after goals but little or no attention to the potential side effects or ancillary concerns that can occur along the way. When we engage in this practice, we may indeed end up with what we seek, but the result could arise in a distorted form because those aspects of the materialization may not be properly considered during the creation process. That can leave us with more messes to clean up and fires to extinguish than anticipated, keeping us from relishing the success we might attain otherwise. Is that really worth it?

That’s the question that Lydia is continually being forced to ask herself as her story unfolds. For example, in her pursuit of Olga, is the fleeting erotic satisfaction Lydia derives from that experience worth potentially losing her partner, her daughter and her comfortable home life, not to mention possibly causing undue complications within her circle of orchestra colleagues? And this is just one example of the many little dramas playing out in her life that carry the potential for significant losses. Imagine what might happen if they all blow up all at once.

It’s obvious that Lydia needs to do some heavy-duty soul-searching, but the problem with that is that she may not even recognize the need to take on this task, let alone know how to proceed with it. As she stares down from her ivory tower, she may well come up with excuses for not doing so, deflecting the need to address this issue and tidily sweeping it under the rug – that is, until some greater problem arises that requires attention and reminds her once again of the need to follow through on this consideration. But, each time this happens, the question is repeatedly raised, “Will she do it?”

No matter what we attempt to create for ourselves, it’s essential that we recognize we’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to the beliefs that go into the process. And, because of that, it also means that we bear the responsibility for what transpires. That’s an issue, unfortunately, that many of us try to duck, seeking to lay blame elsewhere and/or claiming that we had no choice in the matter. Try as we might to pawn off our manifestation foibles on those excuses, however, they ultimately don’t hold any water. We simply must accept the fact that we have to own up to what we create, and, if things don’t turn out as planned or hoped for, we must be prepared to face the music (pun intended), something that Lydia ironically appears to be reluctant to do.

If the foregoing issues are perpetually left unaddressed, the aforementioned comeuppance is almost certain to arise at some point. So then what? The combination of consequences that could emerge from this might well leave Lydia scrambling to stay afloat. The great Ms. Tár could end up facing the greatest challenge of her career, if not her life. On some strange level, given her highly driven nature, maybe that’s what she’s been out to create for herself all along. But is this really the right way to go about it? Only Lydia can answer that for herself. And, if she keeps going the way she has been, she’ll have a lot more to answer for as well.

Conductor Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) pays meticulous attention to her orchestral score as she prepares to make a recording of Mahler’s fifth symphony as seen writer-director Todd Field’s latest, “Tár,” now playing in theaters. Photo courtesy of Focus Features.

“Tár” is unquestionably one of the most unusual offerings of 2022. And, while much of writer-director Todd Field’s latest – his first film in 16 years – succeeds, there are sequences that could definitely use some work, especially at the outset of this somewhat overlong release. This tale of a brilliant, compulsively driven maestra manages to muster its share of dramatic tension and artistic exuberance, but it also leaves its share of loose ends and unclear motivations, making viewers wonder why events unfold as they do (and even more so about why they should care). It’s a work that also leaves open the question of whether this is innately a grand tragedy or a tongue-in-cheek exercise in pretention (again, something more to make audiences wonder why they should care). But perhaps the biggest irritant is the picture’s annoying and tiresome tendency (especially early on as the story is establishing itself) to break into protracted, insular discussions about classical music (and the business of it) that sound more like classroom lectures (or professional gossip) than bona fide believable dialogue. Obviously the screenplay for this project was scrupulously researched, but do viewers really want to know the finer points of its subject matter in such exacting detail?

Much to its credit, however, the film features what is perhaps one of Cate Blanchett’s finest screen performances (a likely Oscar contender), a finely tuned ramping up of the escalating pathos the further one gets into the narrative and a positively superb classical music score. And this current theatrical release is likely to capture a boatload of nominations in multiple categories as awards season unfolds. Is all that enough to save the film, though? I’d provisionally say yes, but, if none of this sounds like it would appeal to you, I’d recommend that you give this one a pass and rent one of the protagonist’s many other fine releases instead.

What we make out of life depends on what we make of ourselves. That opens up a wide range of possibilities for us. But, if there’s something amiss with us, there could well be something amiss with what we manifest, an issue that appears to be ripe for examination in Lydia’s case. However, nothing will get resolved if we turn a blind eye or live our lives without a sense of personal integrity. We certainly wouldn’t want to end up “tárred” for our efforts, because, if we do, the feathers are sure to follow.

A complete review is available by clicking here.

Another Festival in the Books

With the 31st annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival now in the books, it’s time to take a look back at this year’s event. A recap is available in “Wrapping Up the 2022 St. Louis Film Festival”, with summary reviews of 8 new movies. Full reviews of select releases will also be available in the near future.

On Being Ahead of One’s Time

Being ahead of one’s time can be a dual-edged sword. On the plus side, it can get one noticed when breaking new ground in a particular milieu. On the downside, however, it can get one scorned if these new ideas run counter to prevailing opinion. And, ironically, sometimes it can be both, creating a firestorm of controversy from which it may be difficult to emerge without some wounds while on the way to achieving success. Such was the experience of a shy, unlikely Irish pop star who exploded on the music scene as a global sensation, and then disappeared from it almost as quickly, as chronicled in the insightful new Showtime documentary, “Nothing Compares” (web site, trailer).

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Sinéad O’Connor emerged seemingly out of nowhere as one of the biggest names in the music business. She became known for having one of the most distinctive sets of pipes in the industry, with an ability to jump octaves in a single bound and to be able to go from a soft whisper to a banshee scream at the drop of a hat. She also developed a uniquely characteristic ability for vocalizing that exhibits what I’ve often called “harmonious dissonance,” a form of singing where she could seamlessly blend both beautiful and edgy sounds to create a distinctive style all her own. And, as illustrated on her first three albums – The Lion and the Cobra (1987), I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got (1990) and Am I Not Your Girl? (1992) – O’Connor could more than capably handle material ranging from kickass rock numbers to sweet sincere ballads to Big Band standards and do justice to each of them. She even had one of the era’s biggest hits in “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a single off of her second album written by Prince that became better known and more popular than the version penned and performed by its composer. She was quite the talent indeed.

But, just as quickly as she rose to prominence, O’Connor vanished with equal rapidity, and this had nothing to do with her music; rather, it was due to her unabashed candor and a willingness to express views that many at the time found unpopular or unacceptable, if not offensive. For instance, O’Connor was an outspoken critic of the Roman Catholic Church (and its collaborators, the Irish government) in chastising these institutions for their longstanding treatment of at-risk women housed in asylums who were put to work in facilities known as “the Magdalene laundries,” where they were virtual slaves. She also openly criticized Ireland’s lack of support for women’s rights, abortion rights and LGBTQ+ rights. And these “radical” views did not set well with the public in this conservative, largely Catholic country.

However, O’Connor’s outspoken opinions in these areas were nothing compared to a pair of incidents that happened in the US. The first was her refusal to perform at a 1990 stadium concert in New Jersey where the facility played the national anthem before the start of each of its events. The US was involved in the first Gulf War at the time, so patriotic themes were running especially high throughout the country. But O’Connor said her opposition to the war was so strong that she could not perform if her concert was preceded by such a blatant symbol of that conflict. O’Connor’s stance drew harsh criticism from the American public, including singer Frank Sinatra, who openly threatened to “kick her in the ass,” according to media reports at the time. Radio boycotts and other retributive measures ensued, as the once-universally beloved performer’s reputation became heavily tarnished.

The second incident occurred on an episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, where O’Connor was scheduled to appear as the show’s musical guest. But, unbeknownst to the show’s producers, O’Connor made last-minute changes to her performance that outraged many in the national television audience. O’Connor performed an a cappella version of the Bob Marley song “War,” a composition based on a 1963 speech calling for world peace given by Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie at the United Nations General Assembly. However, in O’Connor’s version, she treated the song as a clarion call to fight the Roman Catholic Church for its cover-up of unprosecuted child abuse at the hands of priests, concluding the piece by tearing up a photo of Pope John Paul II, referring to the pontiff as the real enemy behind this atrocity.

O’Connor’s SNL appearance effectively sank her career. When she appeared at a tribute concert to Bob Dylan not long thereafter, she was met with a mixture of cheers but also highly vocal boos. She even faced death threats. Her music virtually disappeared from the airwaves as she disappeared from public view. As quickly as she became an icon, she subsequently became a pariah. And, even though she has continued touring and recording since then, most of her works are virtually unknown – and seldom heard. She effectively became invisible.

So how did such a radical shift in fortunes occur? To understand that, one needs to understand O’Connor, and that’s one of the goals that this film seeks to accomplish. This is where viewers need to take a step back and look at the person and her beliefs – and how they shaped how events played out.

Beliefs, of course, are crucial to the manifestation of our existence. And, as this film shows, O’Connor has never been reluctant to have – or express – beliefs covering a wide variety of areas. It’s not clear if she has heard of this school of thought, but, given her longstanding interest in spirituality and metaphysics, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to see that she has a well-developed innate sense of the principles that drive this mode of thinking – and that she has never had any significant hesitancy in drawing upon it in molding her reality.

To truly understand O’Connor’s beliefs and how she has made use of them, however, one must look to her upbringing, which was often fraught with challenges and difficulties, particularly with her abusive mother. As a teenager, she was sent to one of the aforementioned Magdalene asylums to “correct” her behavior for acts of shoplifting and truancy. But, despite the largely negative reputation of these institutions, her stay nevertheless provided her with an opportunity to help her develop her music, even though she struggled with the strict conformity required of residents. The stringent rules she was forced to deal with thus set in motion the formation of beliefs that would later come to be characterized by unrestrained expression. These conditions helped establish a strong sense of personal integrity, something that she became known for, even if others didn’t necessarily agree with her views, many of which were unconventional for the time.

Ironically, despite the restrictions she faced, music actually became a form of therapy for O’Connor, a liberating experience to express herself and to help her heal. O’Connor said that some of her edgier material proved especially helpful, that it gave her an opportunity to do what she really wanted to do most – scream. On some level, she must have believed that the pain she endured early on in life was something that didn’t serve her as she got older and that such strong emotionally charged artistic outbursts were an effective way to offload that anguish.

This was all part of O’Connor being true to herself and her beliefs. And expressions of this outlook became apparent in her outspoken views in many areas of her life – politics, social policies and practices, and even her own appearance. O’Connor’s famous shaved head, for example, arose in response to pressure from her record label, which tried to strong-arm her into adopting the flashy girly look of other successful ʼ80s pop stars like Madonna. That wasn’t O’Connor’s style, not at all reflective of her personal sensibilities. So, to counter that pressure, she took a razor to her scalp and created the look that became her signature appearance, one that was far ahead of its time and has influenced artists and popular culture ever since.

But pressures involving O’Connor’s appearance didn’t stop there. At the time her first LP was getting ready for release, O’Connor was pregnant with her first child, a development that became a big concern for the record company in designing the album cover. Officials at her label even went so far as to suggest that she terminate the pregnancy for the sake of appearances, a request she flatly refused. She agreed to album cover photography that concealed her baby bump, but there was no way she was going to give up her child for the sake of her record company’s discomfort with her condition.

O’Connor wasn’t afraid to take on the policies and practices in her own industry, either. For example, when the Grammy Awards refused to include rap music as a legitimate, viable category worthy of recognition, artists like Public Enemy refused to attend the ceremony. O’Connor, in turn, showed her support for her fellow artists by performing on the awards broadcast with Public Enemy’s logo tattooed on her scalp, an act that drew considerable attention to the plight of these overlooked musicians.

By taking these defiant stances, O’Connor was cautioned not to push these matters too far, as they were seen as jeopardizing her career as a pop star. But she often responded by saying that she didn’t care about that. She claimed that she made music for the sheer elation of the experience, one of the purest expressions of the joy and power of creation, adding that, if all of her success were to suddenly disappear, it wouldn’t matter to her, because that was not her reason for doing what she did.

Metaphysically speaking, that viewpoint itself represents a belief, one just as capable of yielding a bona fide manifestation as valid as any other. And, given how events played out in her life and career, that’s precisely what happened. However, as evidenced by what unfolded after her so-called fall from grace, O’Connor was undeterred in pursuing her primary goal – continuing to record and perform, even if not with the same level of notoriety and public visibility apparent when she was at the peak of her career. While much of the public is aware of her first three albums, they were not her only recordings; she has since gone on to record eight more albums, and she has been touring throughout the years since the incidents that drained her of her popularity. This is apparent in the film through footage from a recent concert performance in which she delivers a heartfelt rendition of a song titled “Thank You for Hearing Me.” Though written in 1994, this piece has become an obvious thank you to fans who have stayed with her and to the backers who faithfully supported her outspoken views, many of which have become widely accepted today and have even led to policy changes in government and the Church.

By holding fast to her beliefs, O’Connor has seen her vision materialize. One can’t help but think it must provide her with a sense of vindication. But she’s not been one to gloat now that such measures as greater rights for women and the LGBTQ+ community have been enacted in her native Ireland. The same is true of the approval of abortion rights on the Emerald Isle, which once had some of the world’s strictest laws in this regard. Indeed, in light of the changes, one can’t help but wonder whether these reforms would have ever come to pass had it not been for her steadfast conviction in her beliefs and their widespread public expression.

These developments illustrate how O’Connor was willing to become more than just another pop artist; she became an unapologetic activist, too. But the two were not mutually exclusive. Having developed a wide following through her music, O’Connor established a platform to make her voice heard – and not just for her singing. She used her beliefs in truly creative ways that ended up giving us not only memorable music, but also new ideas that have changed the world, most of which many would argue are for the better.

Still, many of her friends and supporters can’t help but believe that O’Connor got a raw deal in response to making her views known. While hindsight is indeed 20/20, many backers have suggested that the criticisms heaped upon her represented an overreaction, even by the standards of the time. As the film shows, she was subjected to severe ridicule and mockery, including in high-profile outlets, such as the show that once warmly welcomed her, Saturday Night Live. However, O’Connor waxes philosophically about all this, too. In one of her more astute observations in the film, she says of her experience, “They tried to bury me, but they didn’t realize I was a seed.”

O’Connor’s gestures were widely seen as acts of career suicide, but none of them fazed her, given that she couldn’t in good conscience stay silent. That kind of courage is often a rare commodity in almost any age, but that seems especially true these days. Which is why director Kathryn Ferguson’s documentary is such an important piece of filmmaking for these times. Even though O’Connor may have expressed views that were unpopular, she nevertheless had the inspiring courage of her convictions to make her feelings known and to carry her through the dark days that ensued. We could all learn a lot from her and from this offering given what we’re up against on so many fronts these days.

O’Connor’s life and work is detailed through a wealth of archive material, including ample performance footage and clips from her music videos. Observations from the artist and those who knew and worked with her augment this content but primarily through voice-over interviews that complement the historical imagery. Despite these strengths, however, some have criticized the film for not presenting a more complete picture of its subject, most notably her life and career from the early 1990s onward, a contention that, admittedly, has some merit. Some have also disparaged the picture for its absence of a recording of “Nothing Compares 2 U,” handily O’Connor’s most successful release. However, the film’s closing credits note that this piece was not included due to a rights issue in which the Prince Estate refused to grant permission to use the song (for reasons that aren’t specified). That’s unfortunate, given the prominent role this work plays in O’Connor’s career, but the picture attempts to make up for this by incorporating images from the song’s music video (but without the backing soundtrack).

Fortunately, “Nothing Compares” has not gone without its share of recognition. The film was nominated for the World Cinema (Documentary) Grand Jury Prize at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, a notable accomplishment, to be sure. It would be gratifying to see this offering earn additional accolades as awards season plays out. The film is currently playing on the Showtime cable TV network and the Showtime Anytime streaming service.

Even though O’Connor may have faded into relative obscurity over time, her music lives on. It’s unfortunate, though, that much of her body of work has gone unrecognized. However, we can take comfort that the same can’t be said of her views and the impact they’ve had in helping to reshape society. She truly was ahead of her time in so many ways, and this film makes that loud and clear. And, as the film so capably shows, in the end, when it comes to Sinéad O’Connor, nothing truly compares to her.

A complete review is available by clicking here. 

Copyright © 2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.