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It tells the story of Alanis Morissette’s rise, and of how she took over (and changed) the pop music landscape, in 1995, with the release of “Jagged Little Pill.” The album went on to sell 33 million copies; it remains the second biggest-selling album of the ’90s, and the 12th biggest album of all time. But even before those stats piled up, you could feel the revolutionary fervor of it.
Early in the documentary, there’s a nicely edited sequence of Morissette running out onto the stage at the start of a number of the concerts she did on that tour (which lasted for 18 months). That sounds like a standard way to kick off a music doc, but I was stunned by the shudder of electricity that went through me as I saw her take the stage. The crowds are screaming, and Alanis, in her long straight hair and T-shirts and loose-fitting dark pants, commands her rock-star moment with a spirit of casual exhortation that few musicians of the time could summon. She wasn’t just giving a concert — she was bringing the news. The news about all the things women were not going to be quiet about anymore. In “Jagged,” she takes the stage like a furious herald angel.
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As an album, “Jagged Little Pill” did something intensely idiosyncratic, which is why some members of the rock-critic establishment didn’t get it. The album took two aesthetics in popular music that, up until that time, had been almost completely separate, and it fused them. One was the eruption of anger. In “You Oughta Know,” the first Morissette song to be played on the radio (it broke her into the stratosphere virtually overnight), the accusations poured out of her, and she delivered them as though possessed, with a holy snarl. Yet as bold as the song was, there was undeniably a context for that kind of expression. It was rooted in the ferocity of grunge, which grew out of ’80s alternative, which grew out of punk, which grew out of primal rage. When I listen to Alanis Morissette, she often sounds, to my ears, a bit British, or maybe Irish or Scottish, as if she were singing with a hint of a brogue. The way I always interpreted that is that she needed that inflection to make the words crack like a whip, almost as if she were Joni Mitchell channeling John Lydon.
But thanks to how Morissette and her co-writer and producer, Glen Ballard, conceived, composed, and produced “Jagged Little Pill,” the album’s anger was embedded in a lavish pop sensibility. Ballard, the producer of Wilson Phillips and Paula Abdul, gave it a wall of sound; the melodies were hooky and lyrical. That fusion, of defiance and sonic sensuality, is at the heart of what enticed so many listeners — and also put some of them off, as if Morissette, in taking her volcanic emotions and turning them into compulsively listenable pop, had somehow “appropriated” the anger of “purer” rockers and made it “commercial.”
Actually, she made it all new. Most of the songs on “Jagged Little Pill” were more confessional than angry, and the way Morissette sang them, she lifted the emotions and made them incantatory. Yet there was always a lot of sniping about her. How many times in the ’90s did you have the conversation — for me, it was dozens — in which somebody said, “She doesn’t actually know what irony is. If it rains on your wedding day, that’s not an example of irony.” I’ve never quite been able to define, in words, what irony is, but I do know this: “Ironic” is such a powerful song, and the image of rain on your wedding day is such an indelible image (of saddened dreams, of enduring love, of life itself), that the song makes it ironic. Maybe that’s its true irony.
Alison Klayman, the director of “Jagged,” is a scrupulous filmmaker who goes off in new directions each time; she has made films about the underadvertised dangers of psychotropic drugs (“Take Your Pills”), the fascist drama of Steve Bannon (“The Brink”), and the heroism of Ai Weiwei (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”). In “Jagged,” she looks at Alanis Morissette’s life with open eyes, taking us back to that moment in the ’90s, but also taking stock of what that moment means from the vantage of our own era. Morissette was just 21 when she became a superstar. She’s 47 now and talks to Klayman sitting cross-legged in a leather chair in her study, backdropped by a wall of books so looming and organized that it looks like it could be the set of a Wes Anderson film. To say that Morissette is articulate about her experience would be to understate the case; there’s an enlightened Zen passion to her grasp of things. Part of the fascination of “Jagged” is that the story it’s telling looms even larger now, because we can see the trails Morissette was blazing, the doors she cracked open. It’s not just that she broke glass ceilings (though she did that too). It’s that she crafted a whole new way for women to imagine themselves.
She grew up in Ottawa, and the fact that she started off as a 15-year-old pop star in Canada, a kind of Debbie-Gibson-meets-Tiffany doing aerobic dances to manufactured synth pop, seemed, in the ’90s, a kind of fluky fact about her (and not, in the end, all that exotic, given the comparable careers of people like Justin Timberlake). There were those who tried to shame her for her teen-pop backstory, as if that undercut her credibility. But Klayman, in fact, treats it as the integral first chapter of Morissette’s mythology.
As a girl who became a (minor) celebrity, shoved into the thresher of the pop industry, working with the producer Leslie Howe, she was already peeking behind the magic mirror; she had an experience of the world that was precocious and traumatic. During video shoots, she wasn’t allowed to eat (Morissette says this caused her eating disorders that lasted for years), and she alludes to what happened to her sexually — the experiences that, at the time, she viewed as “consensual,” but that she now sees more clearly as statutory rape. The Alanis we see in clips from the time — on talk shows, at award ceremonies — looks giddy but vulnerable, with a fawn-in-the-headlights look under her frizzy big hair. The lie she was telling was in what she denied: that though she was a star (and, indeed, because she was a star), the world of men was crushing her.
She cooperated less and less, chafing at the role of pop princess. But since that’s all her record label, MCA, wanted her to be, the label dropped her. Which could have been the end of the story. That she persevered makes her no different, in theory, than a great many other pop stars. But once she put the teen-pop 1980s behind her, Morissette became a musician in search of an identity. And part of her story is that everything she was now turning her back on — the synthetic musical fakery, the sexual victimization — became the rocket fuel for her next act. Justin Timberlake didn’t need to have a reckoning over his NSYNC days. George Michael, in the “Freedom! ’90” video, immolated his shiny black leather jacket as an act of liberation, but come on — it’s not like someone at the record company forced him to dress that way for the “Faith” video. Alanis, in reinventing herself, was ripping her entire being out of the patriarchal pop machine. That’s what set the stage for the exaltation of her anger.
In Los Angeles, she played a demo of one song for Glen Ballard, and that was it; he saw the light. Ballard didn’t have a record-company budget to work with Alanis, but between February 1994 and February 1995, they did 20 day-long sessions in which they wrote and recorded 20 songs at his home studio. “In every way,” recalls Ballard, “it was like a secret hand-made project that we just kind of amused ourselves with.” (It was also a mode of two-person collaborative recording that paved the way for Taylor Swift and Billie Eilish.) Morissette and Ballard believed in what they were doing but didn’t know what they had, and when they shopped the album around to the major labels, no one wanted it. It was the young executive Guy Oseary, working for Madonna’s boutique label, Maverick Records, who came to the rescue. He signed Alanis, and the rest became history as soon as KROQ, the seminal L.A. rock station, began to play “You Oughta Know.” Within a week, thousands showed up for Alanis’s second club gig.
Documentary filmmakers are always looking for “access.” In the case of a film like “Jagged,” that means, in no small part, access to footage — the backstage video and home movies, the intimate documentation of a tour that took place 25 years ago. Klayman gets extraordinary access, which allows her to channel the excitement of that tour, and the brash intimacy of backstage rock culture. Morissette, at 21, was so young yet wise; her feminist outlook had a cosmic consciousness. Her band members were five dudes, most of them bleach-blond, and they shared a trust and affection that’s visible. There’s one moment of tension, however. The band members, notably the drummer Taylor Hawkins (who went on to join Foo Fighters), talk about all the fans they slept with on the tour, acknowledging that they calculatedly dangled the prospect of meeting Alanis, and therefore her status as a liberated rock heroine, as a lure. “The most debaucherous tour I ever did was with Alanis Morissette,” says Hawkins with a grin. The men acknowledge their hypocrisy, and Morissette says that she was incredibly pissed off at them for it.
Is this the section of the film that Morissette now objects to? “Jagged” premiered at the Toronto Film Festival on Sept. 14, and Morissette made a point of not being there to support it, saying, “This was not the story I agreed to tell.” She said she found the finished documentary “salacious” and unfactual. She was not specific in her allegations — which is why I ask if this five-minute section about the offstage behavior of her band members was what she objected to. Perhaps it was the stories of her own abuse at the hands of exploitative men back in her Canadian teen-pop days. Yet Morissette, in the film, forthrightly addresses each of these issues. And they are all, in my view, relevant and fair game for a documentary filmmaker.
Obviously, Alanis Morissette has every right not to like a film about her (even if she cooperated with it). But what I can testify to is that “Jagged” is not a movie that goes on exploitative detours; it’s actually a model of how to make a documentary that understands and celebrates an artist but also takes the long view of her. Unlike so many recent music docs, it doesn’t shy away from cultural criticism: Writers from Lorraine Ali to Hanif Abdurraqib offer insightful testimony as to what it was that made Morissette an incandescent talent. The film’s deconstruction of “You Oughta Know” is brilliant. But it also has Kevin Smith pointing out that Morissette made music men strongly identified with. (That’s part of the empathy of rock.) On stage, as the movie captures, her ferocity was rapturous, but most of her music was laced with joy. Much as I love “Jagged Little Pill,” there are days when my favorite Alanis Morissette song is “Thank U,” off the follow-up album, a song about the journey from pain to happiness — and one that, by the end, is so suffused with happiness that it makes your heart stop…and start again. Only a true voice can do that.
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