TIFF review: Jagged

Alison Klayman's documentary portrait of the Canadian superstar's breakout album vividly captures the complexities of a cultural moment


JAGGED (Alison Klayman, U.S.). 97 min. Sep 14, 7 pm, Roy Thomson Hall; Sep 15, 5 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox; Sep 15, 8:30 pm, Visa Skyline Drive-In; Sep 18, 3 pm, digital TIFF Bell Lightbox. tiff.net. Rating: NNNN


If you listened to mainstream radio or music videos with any regularity in the late 1990s, chances are you can recite the lyrics to an Alanis Morissette song or two (or five).

The Ottawa-born rocker became ubiquitous practically overnight with the 1995 single You Oughta Know, an embittered and cathartic riposte to an ex-lover that made the mainstream music industry suddenly realize that flawed and complicated women could be commercially viable.

The album that contained that song, Jagged Little Pill, has sold 33 million copies globally and is the 19th highest selling album of all time. And it is now the subject of a 25th anniversary documentary that is world premiering at TIFF ahead of its TV debut on HBO in November.

Directed by Alison Klayman (Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry), Jagged resembles a standard rock doc with its mix of archival footage and present-day talking heads, but it delivers a lot more by taking a sharp point-of-view on its subject.

The movie traces how Morissette went from Canadian teen pop idol to global megastar; how career disappointments gave way to songwriting triumphs. But because the narrative is largely contained around Jagged Little Pill, the director is able to zoom out and explore what Morissette refers to as the “ineffable” set of circumstances in the mid-90s that allowed her to become wildly successful on her own terms.

Whereas the recent Woodstock 99: Peace, Love And Rage (part of the same HBO music doc strand as Jagged) finger-wagged at fans of nu metal bands like Limp Bizkit, Klayman takes a more nuanced view of 90s audiences and gender, allowing contradictions to sit in the spirit of Morissette’s music.

The best music documentaries watch the audience as closely as the action onstage, and Jagged vividly reminds us that some of those shirtless bros stomping around to Break Stuff were also earnestly belting out Ironic. Filmmaker Kevin Smith even goes so far to say in Jagged that Morissette “transcended gender.” Others point out that the media was quick to minimize her success with sexist stereotypes, but clearly she was tapping into something deeper.

What makes the movie so watchable is the current of incredulity that underscores so many of the talking-head interviews all these years later, from critics and insiders to Morissette herself. Her gift for punchy metaphors coupled with, as she puts it, “copious amounts of therapy” have turned her into one entertaining documentary interviewee.

A challenge for Klayman had to be ensuring her other speakers didn’t come off as perfunctory next to her highly quotable star (Morissette’s alternate definition of the word “groupie” should be in the dictionary). She often sounds so keenly self-aware it’s as if she’s narrating the story of somebody else’s life.

The director also gets entertaining interviews out of Jagged Little Pill co-songwriter/producer Glenn Ballard and Jagged Little Tour drummer Taylor Hawkins, who later joined the Foo Fighters and is hilariously unpretentious. The family-like relationship between Morissette and her all-male backing band gets an extended segment in Jagged. The musicians amplified her touring success, but jealousy and philandering eventually cause tensions on the road.

It’s one of several instances in which Klayman is able to show how the microcosm of Morissette’s world both reflected and defied aspects of the prevailing culture – and how all of that fraught complexity is not only present in her songs, but it’s partially what makes her music so appealing to so many.

Morissette’s songwriting process and inspirations are also a large focus. Jagged gives credit where credit is due, but it also takes a broader view of the material conditions required to sustain the kind of peak-level success that can influence culture. Morissette says her “work addiction” was never addressed, for example. You get the sense that while was she left to her own devices creatively, there was also a lot left unsaid; a lot of turned heads.

One admission that seems difficult for her to vocalize on camera is that many of her “relationships” as a teen in the music industry were tantamount to statutory rape. Although her lyrics are visceral and pointed, she doesn’t name names, and has managed to broach subjects like sexual abuse through music while remaining vague off stage. Given the focus on Jagged is the mid-to-late-90s, her teen years are positioned largely as a formative precursor to later success and the question how she feels about her family’s seeming absence from this earlier period in her life is left unexplored.

Jagged is willing to go as far Morissette does on personal matters. Unlike the makers many authorized-type music docs Klayman is able to use this to her advantage, creating something that is at once thoughtful, scathing, funny and satisfying without falling into the trap of trying to be “definitive.” Being definitive seems to go against Morissette’s creative impulse, and so Jagged is clever in the way that it is true to its subject.

@KevinRitchie

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