'Jagged' Captures a Young Alanis Morissette Turning Pain Into Power

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A black and white image of Alanis Morissette sitting in a bubble bath smiling broadly, long hair wet from the water. A variety of candles burn in the background.
Alanis Morissette in a rare moment of relaxation in the mid-'90s at the peak of her fame. 'Jagged' explores the time period and the circumstances that led to Morissette's success. (HBO Max)

Back in September, Alanis Morissette refused to attend the premiere of Jagged, HBO's new documentary about her. "i ultimately won’t be supporting someone else’s reductive take on a story much too nuanced for them to ever grasp or tell," the singer wrote in a statement, adding, "this was not the story i agreed to tell." She said that the interview she did for Jagged took place "during a very vulnerable time (while in the midst of my third postpartum depression during lockdown)." The singer even claimed that director Alison Klayman had a "salacious agenda" and "did not warrant being trusted."

Morissette's ire suggested Jagged would be supremely revealing. It suggested that fans would finally get answers to the questions they've pondered ever since Jagged Little Pill first exploded in 1995. Who were the music industry men who exploited her in her teens? And was the older man from "You Oughta Know" really Dave Coulier (Uncle Joey from Full House)? Some viewers might be disappointed, then, to find out that the film stays as vague about those details as Morissette herself always has been. Salacious, Jagged most certainly is not.

Instead, Jagged is a dizzying snapshot of the period in which Morissette was suddenly transformed from former Canadian pop singer to a global rock superstar via the overwhelming success of Jagged Little Pill. We hear about her hyper-productive, organic writing sessions with Glen Ballard. We see her getting signed to Madonna's label, Maverick, after a slew of major labels turned her down. We see her putting together her first band, which included Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins and a bass player she didn't actually mean to call back. We see the adoration that audiences poured onto her at every live show of a grueling 18-month world tour. And we see her musing about the freedom that comes with being acknowledged as a good songwriter—something she was denied in her teens while signed to MCA in Canada.

The film draws many lines between the treatment of Morissette as a teen pop star—starvation diets, long working hours and sexual abuse included—and the rage and catharsis she channeled on Jagged Little Pill. One of the things that makes Jagged most compelling as a film is an undercurrent that runs throughout about exploitative men in the music industry and where that leaves female artists. There's a sense of dread that casts a shadow, if not on Morissette's stage, then certainly in the wings of it.

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Morissette's first single, "Fate Stay With Me," came out when she was 12. And from that point on she was trying to make it as a singer-songwriter. When she hit 15, she explains in Jagged, the industry predators stopped tip-toeing around her and "all bets were off."

"I just thought it was my fault because almost every single person that I would work with, there would be some turning point," Morissette says, "and I would just wait for it. Like 'Okay, this won't happen in the first week with this one, but it'll happen.' And then sure enough it would. And then it would either end the relationship or just be some big secret that we'd keep forever."

Morissette says she stayed quiet about sexual assaults that took place in her teens as a means to protect her family, her future relationships and her own personal safety. Towards the end of the film, she admits it took years of therapy to even admit that she'd been abused. "I would say 'I was consenting,'" she explains, "and then I'd be reminded, 'Hey, you were 15. You're not consenting at 15.' And now it's like, 'Oh, they were all pedophiles. They were all statutory rape.'"

The only time Morissette's habitually calm demeanor breaks at all during Jagged is when she talks about how survivors are silenced. "People are like 'Why did that woman wait 30 years?' And it's like, 'Fuck off. They didn't wait 30 years. No one was listening, or their livelihood was threatened, or their family was threatened.' So yeah. The whole 'Why do women wait?' thing? Women don't wait. Our culture doesn't listen."

Jagged isn't shy about looking at that culture either. The film is careful to show how fixated the male-dominated music press was on Morissette's perceived anger at the time, despite the abundant optimism that was also present on Jagged Little Pill. "I wasn't writing to punish," Morissette points out, "I was writing to express and get it out of my body because I didn't want to get sick."

Her former band is also forced to admit that they engaged in exploitative practices during Morissette's world tour in 1995 and '96. They describe handing out stacks of passes to female fans and inviting them backstage to an area that Morissette herself didn't know about for most of the tour. "The most debaucherous tour I've ever done in my life," Taylor Hawkins sheepishly admits, "was with Alanis Morissette."

When asked about her band's behavior in Jagged, Morissette calls it "a betrayal." But she admits she didn't fire them because her experience in the industry told her that a new set of musicians would behave in exactly the same way, but "wouldn't sound as great." When asked if she could've hired an all-female band, she says at the time there was so little space for female artists in rock that she worried women in her band—"women who wanted to be in my seat"—might try to steal focus.

One of the things that most strikes you, watching old footage in Jagged now, is how incredibly young Morissette was at the time of her superstardom. She had turned 21 less than two weeks after Jagged Little Pill came out—a point that was under-acknowledged at the time, probably because the maturity of her songs and life experiences belied her youth.

In the end, it's difficult to fathom what in Jagged upset Morissette enough to boycott its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. The documentary portrays her with awe and reverence: as a great vocalist, a gifted songwriter, a survivor and a voice for others. It also carefully positions her in the music industry during a period when it was an all-powerful machine that thought nothing of chewing young women up and spitting them out.

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"Only in hindsight," Garbage vocalist Shirley Manson says in the film, "am I aware of what Alanis did for every woman that's come up behind her. When you're battering down 13 million doors, that's helping everyone."