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TIFF 2021: Jagged tells you everything you oughta know about Alanis Morrissette

Jagged (HBO)

Alison Klayman’s chronicle of the Canadian singer’s rise to fame centers around her seminal 1995 album, and the trail it blazed for female artists.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.)

This year’s edition of the Toronto International Film Festival finally got a hint of scandal—albeit of the most well-mannered variety imaginable—when it was announced that rock star Alanis Morissette, the focus of the new documentary Jagged, would not be attending the film’s gala world premiere, reportedly due to what the Washington Post dubbed “unspecified issues with the finished product.”

This was surprising, not just because it seemed strange that the Ontario-born singer would blow off such an occasion in her own hometown. After all, Morissette fully participated in the film’s making—it is based around a long interview conducted with her in her California home, and is mostly celebratory in tone. For her to suddenly object to it struck many as confounding.

Then again, as Alison Klayman’s film reveals, Morissette has been confounding people ever since the 1995 release of Jagged Little Pill defied all expectations, selling more than 33 million copies throughout the world, making it the second-biggest album of the ’90s and the twelfth-biggest of all time. At that time, she had some mild fame in her home country through a couple of albums of blandly inoffensive dance-pop but was a complete unknown in America. Moreover, the songs that she began cooking up with producer Glen Ballard defied what was expected from female pop stars at that time. After being rejected by all the big labels, she eventually signed with Madonna’s Maverick label and the rest, as they say, is history.

Jagged (HBO)
Jagged (HBO)

Using a combination of archival video, behind-the-scenes footage, and contemporary interviews with Morissette, Ballard, the members of her touring band, and music critics, the film charts that history. Alanis transforms almost overnight from an unknown to one of the biggest music acts around, after the album drops with the power of an atomic bomb. These were songs written by someone who had things to say about her life experiences and did so with the kind of massive hooks that worked equally well on headphones or in an arena filled with tens of thousands of people.

The songs tapped into a market that the music industry had largely dismissed, and would go on to influence countless female performers who emerged in her wake, from Taylor Swift and Beyonce (both of whom are seen performing “You Oughta Know”) to current pissed-off pop sensation Olivia Rodrigo.

As it turns out, Morissette’s anger was more than justified, as she reveals the exploitation and abuse that she suffered at the hands of the music industry. During her teen-pop days, she was pressured to stay thin to such an extent that she soon developed an eating disorder. Once she turned 15, she found herself faced with sexual advances from men much older than her that, in a few instances developed into what she now calls statutory rape. In the rare instances when she would bring it up, her charges would be ignored or overlooked. (She does not make accusations against any specific people and indeed, she remains silent on the much-debated identity of the person that inspired “You Oughta Know.”)

The overall tone of the film is … cheerful, as Morissette looks back at that astonishing time.

Although these moments of self-revelation will no doubt be the most-discussed in Jagged, the overall tone of the film is often more cheerful, as Morissette looks back at that astonishing time. We witness her going out on a grueling 18-month tour that began with her playing small showcase gigs and found her traveling the world alongside the likes of Bob Dylan and Eric Clapton. And yet, there were still some tensions, most notably when she discovered that the members of her all-male band were using their proximity to her as a way to hook up with her fans — a revelation that she says, with great understatement, “just didn’t match my mission or my value system.”

Jagged essentially ends with the conclusion of that tour, save for an epilogue that shows her with her own children and still dealing with the legacy of Jagged Little Pill, which would serve as the basis of a hit Broadway musical of the same name. Although maybe not as raw and revelatory as one might expect, it’s ultimately more interesting than most of the current wave of pop star documentaries, which feel more like extended catalogue promos than anything else. It’s also a must-see for young women, especially those looking to make it in the entertainment industry.

That said, I remain baffled about what her specific objections could possibly be. Maybe the person who became a legitimate icon by letting it all hang out emotionally decided at the last second that she had said too much. Wouldn’t that be ironic?

Jagged premieres on HBO as part of the Music Box documentary series November 16th.

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Peter Sobczynski

Peter Sobczynski is a Chicago-based filmcritic whose work can be seen at RogerEbert.com, EFilmcritic.com and, well, here. He is also on the board for the Chicago Critics Film Festival and the Chicago Film Critics Association. Yes, he once gave four stars to “Valerian” and he would do it again.