Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Sex. Celebrity. Politics. With Teeth

Alanis Morissette Documentary Jagged Is a Hardly a Thrill

Morissette has denounced Alison Klayman's doc about her breakthrough album...but why?
Photo: Kevin Winter (Getty Images)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Alanis Morissette is not happy with Jagged, the newly released documentary about the making of her landmark 1995 album, Jagged Little Pill. “This was not the story I agreed to tell,” she said in a statement sent to various news outlets in September, as director Alison Klayman’s project was making its debut at the Toronto Film Festival. Isn’t it ironic: A documentary intended to shed new light on an old story has been complicated and obfuscated by the post-production comments of its principal source.

Explaining her refusal to attend the festival to promote the film, Morissette accused Jagged of having a “salacious agenda,” called out its inclusion of “implications and facts that are simply not true,” and said that her interview for it was shot “during a very vulnerable time” when she was experiencing postpartum depression. (Morissette’s son, Winter Mercy, was born August 8, 2019, and the visible clapboard for her interview, which Klayman has said took two days, reads 8/10/20.)

“I sit here now experiencing the full impact of having trusted someone who did not warrant being trusted,” Morissette’s statement continued, in apparent reference to Klayman. For her part, Klayman has projected compassion. In an interview with Deadline, she explained that she screened the doc for Morissette as a “courtesy” and for fact-checking purposes. Klayman said, “It’s a really hard thing to see a movie about yourself and I think she’s incredibly brave and the reaction when she saw it was that it was a really, you know, she could feel all the work and all the nuance that went into it.”

I put this beef upfront because it’s the most interesting thing about Jagged, which at its best is a breezy throwback to an almost inconceivable era (from this vantage point) and at its worst is yet another in a long line of musician-centered docs so reverent as to be indistinguishable from an electronic press release. It’s an enjoyable documentary stuffed with rare footage from Morissette’s own extensive archive (including tons of performances recorded during the marathon world tour that fanned the flames of her red-hot breakthrough album) that tends to gloss over finer details that would have made revisiting such a mainstream landmark actually feel like time well spent and not nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake. Jagged is too often the latter.

In fairness, Klayman is clearly attempting to view a less socially conscious era through the modern post-MeToo/Time’s Up lens. She shines a light on things that went unsaid or were taken for granted, but that light clicks off fast as Jagged hurtles to its next discussion topic, and as a result of her subject’s apparent terseness. Morissette vaguely discusses “an element of lack of hyper-protection” in her days as a Canadian teen dance pop star (the more rock-oriented Jagged Little Pill was actually her third album). This included being taken advantage of sexually at age 15 by older men, though details and names go unmentioned. (“Now I’m like, ‘Oh yeah they’re all pedophiles. It’s all statutory rape,’” she says.) She talks about the rumor that she wrote “You Oughta Know” about Full House actor Dave Coulier, and, without confirming or denying, laments that the buzz distorted her romantic history so as to comprise only one person, when the song could have been about several. She describes entering a studio as a teen, thinking that she was there to cut vocals, only to be confronted by a producer who wanted to discuss her weight gain. There began, she says, a long eating disorder. Morissette also talks about the creative breakthrough that collaborating with Pill producer Glen Ballard marked for her as a young songwriter. Unlike the men that she worked with previously, who didn’t think she could write, Ballard encouraged her to draw from her life and put it in her songs. His prompt—“Who are you? What’s going on? What do you want to write about?”—redefined her music’s center and facilitated her ability to reach the masses.

Morissette is frank about her distaste for her all-male touring band’s practice of mining her fanbase of young women for sexual conquests (though it should be specified that there are no allegations in the doc that they pursued underage audience members). “It did feel disrespectful to me,” Morissette says. “Some of the behavior just didn’t match my mission or my value system at all. But I’d only grown up around men. So I thought, okay are you going to replace them with five other men that are gonna do the exact same thing and won’t sound as great?”

This is about as deep she goes, and the protracted shoulder shrugging that follows her admission is typical of a doc that occasionally goes there and almost never goes deep. The resentment that indie fans and other snobs had for Morissette’s supposed commodification of women’s rage is barely touched on, via an excerpt in a review. Similarly mentioned in passing is the widespread notion that the song “Ironic” contains few, if any, examples of actual irony. (Which is perhaps what makes it so…ironic. At any rate, given the subjective nature of irony, a concept defined by unmet expectations, I always thought a lot of what’s included could qualify depending on one’s POV.)

And so, Jagged carries itself with the weight of a contemporary pop-culture reassessment without doing a lot of the required lifting. It’s not quite the puff piece that was this year’s Mary J. Blige’s My Life, but it’s close. The notion of Morissette’s legacy is illustrated by Taylor Swift’s fairly recent onstage proclamation that Morissette inspired “a generation of” women songwriters, which is a nice thing to say, but I haven’t seen data backing that up. In fact, the included claims of Morissette’s longevity and ongoing impact create an actual distortion. Despite what they say about lightning never striking the same place twice and beginner’s luck, Jagged Little Pill is a singular case study in fleeting popularity. It was one of the biggest albums of the ‘90s, with 33 million copies sold worldwide and over 15 million in the United States alone, but the momentum halted almost immediately. In Jagged, journalist Lorraine Ali (formerly of Rolling Stone) says that Morissette’s next two albums debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, which is technically true, but good first weeks hardly tell the larger story of these massive commercial disappointments. Each sold a fraction of Pill (1998’s Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie did a little over 2.5 million in the U.S., and Under Rug Swept moved about a million domestically), and the returns have only diminished from there. Ali cites Morissette’s longevity in such generic terms (“From Jagged Little Pill all the way up to Broadway, what is the core thing that pulled her through and kept her sane and made it so she didn’t implode like a billion other artists was the music”) as to be virtually useless.

I highly doubt the flattering distortions of Morissette’s legacy are what she took issue with when she called out “implications and facts that are simply not true.” In fact, for someone who supposedly told the truth of a generation, these words are regrettably imprecise. Without cited examples, they foster distrust for journalism that is, in fact, often in her service and seemingly dictated by her words and what she was and wasn’t willing to share. Quite a bit of Jagged’s time is spent dismantling the notion that Morissette was “angry,” when anger was just one color in a whole palate of emotions on Jagged Little Pill. But her refusal to support Jagged or explain exactly why makes her just seem mad all over again. Irony, at least, can strike more than once.