To be honest, musical biodocs aren’t much of a priority at festivals. They usually come in with a distribution plan already in place—with some exceptions, like the Kickstarter-backed Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche—and, more often than not, follow a familiar equation. We open on footage of the artist in their prime, performing before massive, screaming crowds. Cut to said artist now, looking wiser and more content sitting in luxurious surroundings paid for by all those sold-out stadium tours. They say something to the effect of, “That was a wild time in my life.” Cut to where it all began, whether that be rehearsals in someone’s basement or a baby picture.
Jagged is very much of this nature, so it’s odd that it’s become the documentary to stir up controversy at this year’s TIFF. Like Listening To Kenny G, which I reviewed earlier this week and which breaks the biodoc curse by actually being about something beyond dutiful recounting, Jagged is part of the Music Box series of docs produced for HBO by Bill Simmons. (Still to debut are films on late rappers DMX and Juice WRLD, as well as one on unsung disco tastemaker Robert Stigwood.) The first film in the series, Woodstock ’99: Peace, Love, And Rage, debuted on HBO Max in late July to huge social-media buzz. The rest are slated for “late fall”—although not if Alanis Morissette has anything to say about it.
The controversy began after Deadline ran an interview with Jagged director Alison Klayman yesterday morning in which Klayman confirmed rumors that Morissette would not be present at the film’s premiere. By mid-afternoon, Morissette had released a statement through her management saying the documentary has a “salacious agenda.” She goes on to say that Klayman violated her trust by pitching the project to her as a “piece about the celebration of Jagged Little Pill’s 25th anniversary,” and by interviewing her “during a very vulnerable time (while in the midst of my third postpartum depression during lockdown).” She adds:
this was not the story i agreed to tell. i sit here now experiencing the full impact of having trusted someone who did not warrant being trusted. i have chosen not to attend any event around this movie for two reasons: one is that i am on tour right now. the other is that, not unlike many “stories” and unauthorized biographies out there over the years, this one includes implications and facts that are simply not true. while there is beauty and some elements of accuracy in this/my story to be sure— i ultimately won’t be supporting someone else’s reductive take on a story much too nuanced for them to ever grasp or tell.
Since Morissette’s dismay over Jagged first began to bubble up last week, there’s been speculation about what exactly is in the documentary to make the singer so upset. For the most part, it is about Jagged Little Pill, to the extent that Morissette ends up looking like something of a one-album wonder. As for any “salacious agendas,” there is a segment in the middle of the film in which Morissette’s band admits to using fans’ admiration of the singer to lure them backstage and into bed, copping to a secret room at stadium shows where band members would take young women for sex. (For her part, Morissette says “It did feel disrespectful to me” when she found out about all this, and that she put a stop to it.) We see footage of drummer Taylor Hawkins flirting and signing autographs before a show, and while watching this segment all I could think about was how young these girls looked. And this speaks to why Alanis might be uncomfortable with Jagged.
The ’70s-style backstage debauchery on the Jagged Little Pill tour is one of a handful of ways that Jagged touches on how the ’90s were a different time, for women and for music. When “You Oughta Know” became an instant sensation on L.A. radio station KROQ in the summer of ’95, the station had a policy of never playing two women artists back to back. “That’s just how it was,” a female DJ says sadly. By being an anomaly in the industry, a woman singer who wore jeans and T-shirts on stage and whose album still massively outsold the boys’, Morissette was placed in many situations where what she calls a “scarcity mindset” was encouraged. It was just easier to be one of the guys, she says. This attitude is outdated, to be sure. But it was a survival mechanism. And given the ways in which she did push back, opening doors for artists like Garbage’s Shirley Manson (who praises Morissette like a god in the documentary), it’s forgivable. She’s even earned the right to talk a little bit of shit about Radiohead, as she does in the doc; she gave them their first big stadium gigs, opening for her on the Jagged Little Pill tour.
But when the topic veers from songwriting or performing, Morissette seems anxious. At one point, she states with great seriousness that “You were immediately shut down, and punished,” if you protested too much as a young woman in the industry. It was lonely being Alanis in the mid-’90s—she speaks of fame in terms of survival and alienation—and the wall she created to protect herself is still there. After watching the documentary, it’s sad but understandable to see her walk back what she says in it, given that she also says she never spoke publicly about the darker parts of her life because she “wanted to protect” her family, friends, and partners from the fallout. She still seems afraid of angering powerful men, even as the industry has changed in ways that make them less powerful than they used to be.
There’s a section in Jagged that knocked the breath out of me, where Morissette says it took decades of therapy for her to admit, even to herself, that she could not have consented to sex at the age of 15—an age where, as she puts it, “all bets were off” in terms of attention from older men. She may be concerned about legalities, as at the time the age of consent in Canada was 14. But she doesn’t name any names here, just like she’s never said who “You Oughta Know” is about. (It’s not about Dave Coulier. She will say that much.) “Women don’t wait. The culture doesn’t listen,” Morissette says, condemning everyone she ever told secrets to in private whose response convinced her to keep quiet in public.
Klayman has directed a handful of biographical documentaries, about subjects that include the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei and Trump Svengali Steve Bannon. In her video introduction to the virtual screening of Jagged, she comes off like a fangirl, chucking at her own jokes as she works Alanis lyrics into her scripted statement about the film. And Jagged is a laudatory documentary—in fact, at times I felt like they were laying it on a little thick, especially when talking about how profound the lyrics to “Ironic” are. (Sorry, but really?)
That wouldn’t excuse Klayman breaking promises to her subject by including footage she agreed was off the record, of course. (Without any further interviews or statements from either party, it’s hard to say how the breach of trust went down.) But after watching Jagged, with the knowledge that Morissette had denounced it, my response was one of profound sadness. Morissette was so young, a child star who became an international sensation when she was barely old enough to drink. And she clearly experienced a trauma, if not multiple ones, during that time. If she’s not ready to talk about those things, that’s her call to make. She never has to talk about them, if she doesn’t want to. But she has nothing to be ashamed of, and she might be surprised at how her story—all of it—would be received now as compared to the ’90s. And if she’s out there and reading this, I want her to know that I believe her, and that I’m sorry.