Alison Klayman delves into the origins and legacy of Alanis Morissette’s groundbreaking album ‘Jagged Little Pill’.
At one point in the ’90s, nearly one in 10 Americans owned a copy of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 album ‘Jagged Little Pill’. Jagged, a new documentary about the Canadian alt-rocker’s meteoric rise, begins by throwing viewers right into the pandemonium of the era. The film is an instalment in HBO’s Music Box docuseries and is the latest from Alison Klayman, perhaps best known for 2012’s Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry.
While ‘Jagged Little Pill’ is the album that introduced most of the world to the Ottawan artist, her breakthrough project was in fact her third, released just days after her 21st birthday. Her preceding two albums, 1991’s ‘Alanis’ and 1992’s ‘Now is the Time’, had been available only in her home country, where she was known as something of a teen pop sensation.
After being dropped by her label, she moved to Los Angeles to write what eventually became her first international release. Her creative partner here was noted pop songwriter and producer Glen Ballard, who recalls knowing instantly that he had a gifted lyricist on his hands. The first stab at ‘Jagged Little Pill’, we’re told, was recorded with the lyrics more or less locked.
Securing a new label for the idiosyncratic Morissette was more of a challenge. The duo were turned down by everyone except the Madonna co-founded Maverick, which signed Morissette in 1994 after hearing just a couple of songs. It was the following year that the album’s explosive lead single, ‘You Oughta Know’, debuted on LA’s KROQ-FM, catapulting her into the limelight practically overnight. Klayman smartly underscores this moment by playing 75 untampered-with seconds of the music video. To some extent, the sequence suggests, the song doesn’t need explaining.
But it’s nevertheless on the topic of Morissette’s music that we’re introduced to the film’s talking heads. Aside from the star herself, who reports from the massive library in her Northern California home, the group consists of mostly music journalists and critics, though Garbage’s Shirley Manson acts as Morissette’s sole industry peer, and repeat collaborator Kevin Smith is there for good measure.
And while the film is arguably more illuminating about the surrounding album era than the album itself, one of its main takeaways is how much more emotionally complex the latter was than its contemporaneous coverage ever suggested. “Angry” was the descriptor thrown around the most, but Klayman’s interviewees paint a significantly more nuanced picture of the record. Its creator, for her part, remembers ‘Jagged Little Pill’ as a hopeful, even merciful project – any spitefulness notwithstanding.
Morissette, though, had plenty of reason to be angry at 21. Early in the film, she describes the strange dynamic that came with being Canada’s pop princess, where she was at once living out her childhood dreams and being preyed upon by older men. As a teenager, she was asked by a producer to lose weight, igniting what she calls a “massive eating disorder journey.”
Without naming names, she also makes statutory rape allegations, adding that nobody she told did anything to intervene. “Women don’t wait,” she says of that lazy question often asked of sexual assault survivors. “A culture doesn’t listen.” The revelation comes rather late in the film, but in a way that parallels the way that adult Morissette has had to unpack the experience years removed from it.
Ahead of its Toronto premiere, the star denounced Jagged, calling it “salacious” and “reductive.” That’s entirely within her right; it’s also true that it’s largely structured by her own testimony. Surrounded by her books, fortysomething Morissette is unflinching, eloquent, and quite funny. A lot of the film’s magic also lies in its wealth of rare footage, which its subject seems to have supplied, a lot of it shot by herself. (Early on in the film, she visits a storage locker where she’s kept everything – demo tapes, contact sheets from photoshoots, a copy of Smith’s 1999 film Dogma, and so on.) That level of intimacy and vulnerability is understandably uncomfortable for Morissette, but it’s indeed what sets the film apart in this era of on-screen music hagiography.
Unfortunately, it struggles a bit towards the end. Around the same time as she’s being interviewed, Morissette is gearing up to release 2020’s ‘Such Pretty Forks in the Road’, her first album in eight years. But there’s no attempt to even briefly abridge the preceding two decades – nothing about the five albums, the acting career, the marriage, or the three children that have all defined her post-‘Jagged Little Pill’ life. So when we see her playing with her kids in her backyard, there are – narratively speaking – zero stakes, however cute they are.
There’s also a questionable attempt to nod to her music industry successors. Beyoncé and Taylor Swift are put forward via footage of each artist covering ‘You Oughta Know’ – in Swift’s case, duetting with Morissette, whom she thanks on stage for her confessional songwriting. These examples aren’t necessarily wildly off-base, but they seem to have been chosen less for their genealogical accuracy and more because they’re high-profile. Anyone from Avril Lavigne to Halsey, both of whom have actually put their work in conversation with Morissette, would have made more sense.
Though Jagged has trouble sticking the landing, it remains a captivating deep-dive into a certified cultural phenomenon, if a bit thin on the actual music that propelled it. The headlines being generated in response to Morissette’s denouncement are ultimately shaping up to be far more salacious and reductive than the film itself, which is invariably respectful of its subject and her artistry.
Published 18 Sep 2021
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