Three new films at Sundance take a look at women who won’t shut up and be quiet — in very different ways. They are “Nothing Compares,” “Call Jane” and “The Princess.”
The most notable is the stunning documentary about the life of Irish pop star Sinead O’Connor, “Nothing Compares.”
Belfast director Kathryn Ferguson, with the cooperation of O’Connor, dives into the controversies that have dogged the singer throughout her career — the most famous of which was the ripping up of a photo of Pope John Paul II on “Saturday Night Live” on Oct. 3, 1992.
That action and the uproar that followed almost killed her career. But O’Connor expresses no regrets and offers no apologies, and “Nothing Compares” tries to explain why.
In voiceovers throughout the film, we hear O’Connor describe her abusive childhood, her “beastly” mother, and having to spend entire nights outside in their family garden because her mother locked her out of the house. We also hear about how she was sent to a Catholic school where many Irish women before her were sent, some for the rest of their lives. And we hear details about O’Connor’s growing rage with the patriarchy of Catholicism, its domination of Irish society, its repression of women and the refusal of the papacy to protect children from sexual abuse.
That’s a lot to address when you want to be a rock star, but O’Connor says she wasn’t interested in stardom. She just needed to scream. And she found that outlet in music.
When she was preparing to record her first album, “The Lion and the Cobra,” she demonstrated her rebellious streak early by refusing to get dolled up for the album cover photo. Instead, she shaved her head.
It was playing with gender roles, but it was much more. “People found it problematic because they read the language of skinhead into the shaved head,” says filmmaker John Maybury. “It suggested some kind of aggression. But actually the beauty of her features, the quality of her eyes, created a fantastic contradiction.”
It was, in short, non-binary feminism that the world wasn’t quite ready for in the late 1980s.
While a vocal supporter of a woman’s right to choose and a fierce critic of the now-overturned Irish law that banned abortion, O’Connor says she was urged to have an abortion when she became pregnant before the release of her first album.
O’Connor, of course, took that as being told what to do by men, and she went ahead with the pregnancy, much to the music label’s dismay.
She says she had to take that kind of crap from a patriarchal country, from her dead, and she was “not taking it from anyone else.”
The documentary follows her life chronologically, showing her early performances, her Grammy victories, her soaring to the top of the charts with “Mandinka” and the later worldwide hit, “Nothing Compares 2 U,” her covering of the Prince ballad. Notably, a performance of that song is missing from the documentary because the Prince estate refused to cooperate with the makers of the film.
The most excruciating moment in “Nothing Compares” comes a few weeks after the uproar over the pope, when O’Connor is introduced on stage at a Bob Dylan anniversary concert by Kris Kristofferson. When O’Connor approaches the microphone, a mixture of roars and boos and cheers greets O’Connor, who had planned to sing a soft song. So she just stands there as the noise gets louder and louder. At one point, Kristofferson comes out and tells O’Connor, “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” To which O’Connor responds, “I’m not down.” Then she begins screaming into the microphone the lyrics of Bob Marley’s “War.” The crowd refuses to be quiet, but O’Connor persists.
At one point, an off-camera wag says of those booing, “What in the world are they doing at a Bob Dylan concert?” Indeed.
Whatever the case, O’Connor has plenty of people speaking in her support, most notably Chuck D of Public Enemy. When he was warring with the Grammys over whether rap should be a musical category worthy of honors, O’Connor was bold enough to have the Public Enemy logo painted on her shaved head during her Grammy performance.
The movie ends with an update on O’Connor’s life, including details about the albums she has released in the last few years. The premiere at Sundance comes a few weeks after the suicide of her son Shane, so O’Connor did not make any special appearances online to help promote the documentary during the festival.
The arguments over abortion are at the center of one of the early narrative standouts at Sundance — “Call Jane.”
Directed by Phyllis Nagy, it focuses on the women who made up what was known as the Jane Collective in the late 1960s in Chicago. The group organized to help women find safe abortions. And it shows that even if abortion is made illegal and if Roe v Wade is overturned, abortions will not stop. As the movie makes clear, women will not cede the power of making a choice about their bodies.
Elizabeth Banks stars as Joy, who looks like the perfect wife for 1960s America, with coiffed blonde hair and polyester clothes. She’s married to a lawyer (Chris Messina), and she gets pregnant with her second child, only to learn that a heart condition gives her a 50-50 chance of dying during childbirth.
She seeks an abortion from the hospital where her doctor works, but the board denies her access to one. So she begins to seek out alternatives and sees an advertisement about “calling Jane” for help.
There are several “Janes,” as it turns out. The most notable one is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), and the character is loosely based on Jane founder Heather Booth. Also among the collective is Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku). She’s a Black Power activist who argues that the doctor they use for the abortions charges too much for lower-income women to afford.
After Joy has her abortion, she gets a call from Virginia, who needs her to pick up a young patient who lives nearby and drive her to the clinic. Joy agrees and begins to see how many other people are faced with similar problems. Slowly, she starts helping at the clinic and eventually learns how to perform the abortion procedure herself.
Banks does a great job as Joy, and Weaver is strong in pretty much anything she does. But the movie doesn’t entirely succeed. It’s not preachy, but it seems a bit too pat in that it underplays the risks that these women are taking. Still, with the debate over abortion still raging decades after Roe v Wade, it couldn’t be more timely.
It’s hard to make a case that “The Princess” is timely. Everyone knows the story of Princess Diana, the fairytale wedding that turned into a marital nightmare. But director Ed Perkins tries to offer a fresh perspective in this project for HBO Films.
How fresh, you might ask? Well, for one thing, “The Princess” is made up entirely of archival footage. And it’s almost unimaginable how many hours and hours of footage the filmmakers had to sort through to come up with a film about one of the most-photographed women in world history.
The first part of the film, as you might expect, tracks Diana as she prepares for the royal wedding, with TV interviews with Prince Charles and various news reports about her comings and goings.
There’s also a lot of footage showing Diana’s popularity with the British people, many of whom unexpectedly get hugs from her — not a royal tradition.
But Perkins and his editors artfully begin to insert archival image of Camilla Parker Bowles into “The Princess,” just as Bowles was beginning to insert herself into the royal marriage.
Before long, we get archival TV footage of anchors wondering aloud whether Prince Charles is spending too much time away from his bride.
Throughout the film, we see the hordes of photographers who track Princess Di’s every move, following her everywhere she goes and using long lenses to take photos of her in private moments. And it’s hard not to wonder whether Perkins and his team are building a movie out of a mountain of tacky tabloid moments. But that’s part of the point. Perkins obviously wants to make us uneasy, because the public paid good money for those tacky tabloid moments — and thus bears some responsibility in what eventually happened.
The editing by Jinx Godfrey and Daniel Lapira deserves special recognition in any review of “The Princess.” They come up with some perfect archival moments, dealing with the separation of Charles and Diana, the warring stories in the press, Diana’s interview with the BBC about “three people” in her marriage, the various books about the breakup and the jaded response to early reports about the car crash in which Diana died.
In a memorable moment, we learn of Diana’s death while watching a homemade tape of some guys playing a card game, with the TV on in the background. They listen to reports that Diana was in a car that crashed. But no one on TV has said she has died, and the card players don’t show much concern. But then the reports become more dire and eventually confirm her death, and the games stop and the guys become slack-jawed.
“The Princess” shows the outpouring of grief over Diana’s death, but it also has moments of shocking nonchalance. In particular, the late wag Christopher Hitchens appears on TV and says he thinks mourning Brits must have “brain rot,” that their attachment to Diana is “gross idolatry.” He adds: “Get a life. She wasn’t such a big deal. We’ll get along without her.”
Diana, of course, hasn’t really gone away. And “The Princess” will only add to the lore.
Single film tickets to online Sundance screenings are available at festival.sundance.org/tickets/#