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‘Jagged’ Review: Alanis Morissette Narrates Her Origin Story in a Too-Tame Documentary

TIFF: Alison Klayman's look at the Canadian superstar's breakthrough album is well-made, surprisingly basic, and destined to make headlines.

“Jagged”

HBO

In the months following the release of Alanis Morissette’s breakout album “Jagged Little Pill,” one question persisted throughout the glowing coverage of the singer-songwriter’s debut: Why was this gal so angry? It’s a question that director Alison Klayman (“Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry”) thoroughly answers in her well-assembled, if surprisingly basic documentary “Jagged,” but it’s refreshing to see the not-quite fawning profile engage with something a bit more substantive. That’s not to say the film’s subject isn’t substantive — she is — but this focused look at Morissette’s early years seems hellbent on offering up a glossier-than-necessary veneer on a complex story. When it veers away from a predictable timeline and expected beats, “Jagged” hits its high notes.

As was the case with Morissette’s big break, these moments come care of heightened emotion, like a series of magazine headlines that juxtapose “angry” with “hot” with a startling, queasy regularity. If nothing else, “Jagged” makes one thing clear: Morissette was angry, but she was also happy and joyful and inspired and tough and driven, and if anger was the thing people latched on to, so be it. At least it was honest.

Honesty isn’t at issue in the film, but depth might be. It’s all narrated by Morissette, which makes “Jagged” appealing even as it never quite engages with some hard truths. She offers a riveting subject, both in archival footage and in a series of new interviews, but there’s always going to be something paradoxical about a person walking us through her own story. Somehow both deeply personal and offered at a distance (can anyone really speak to the truth of their lives? can anyone else get close?), “Jagged” provides a snapshot of Morissette, and music, at an important juncture.

Neatly assembled from a bevy of archival footage, including family photos, early interviews, and plenty of bits chronicling Morissette’s early childhood career, access was clearly not a problem. At one point, present-day Morissette walks us through her incredibly tidy storage unit, filled with treasures like a giant bag of love letters, the first cut of “Ironic,” and the four-track recorder she made her first song on (as a literal child).

Youngsters watching the doc won’t quite fully appreciate the early goodies Klayman has gathered. Back when Morissette broke out in 1995 with the release of “Jagged Little Pill,” her first career as a kiddie star and pop singer was the stuff of wacky legend. There was no internet to turn to, no IMDb to list her credits for “Star Search” or “You Can’t Do That on Television,” no YouTube to dig up her flashy, Debbie Gibson-esque early records. It was the kind of thing an episode of “Pop-Up Video” might teach you, something whispered on “TRL,” but never concrete. No wonder Morissette seemed like she came out of nowhere; she came out of Canada.

After getting dumped by her childhood label, Morissette journeyed to Los Angeles in hopes of turning her career into something new, something she wanted to make, something totally different. The road was not easy until, of course, it was, and she became a massive star (at one point, a talking head notes that one out of every 10 Americans owned “Jagged Little Pill”), and soon “Jagged” alights on Morissette’s breakout fame, the awards, the wild, free-wheeling first tour. Oh, yes, there is some trouble and doubt, but then it’s off to the races. Laced throughout, however, are various comments and recollections from Morissette that point to a darker origin story. When “Jagged” engages with them, the film takes a different, far more vital turn.

“Jagged”

HBO

The film debuted at TIFF September 14 and has already made waves, with journalists writing early pieces about Morissette’s statutory rape accusations (she does not name names, but they are all believed to have occurred when she was an underage Canadian pop star), along with a Washington Post report that claims the singer and subject will not appear at doc’s premiere because she’s potentially unhappy with the final product. Hours before the film’s premiere, Deadline shared a statement from Morissette in which she called the film “someone else’s reductive take on a story much too nuanced for them to ever grasp or tell.”

The particulars of Morissette’s beef with the documentary are clearly complex and layered. Her statement also notes that she “was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film.” Those feelings are surely valid, but Klayman’s film reads as a pretty loving look at its subject, and news stories that focus only on the rape allegations are perhaps more likely culprits for bad feelings; who wouldn’t feel bad if their reflections were reduced to salacious headlines?

The film, as a whole, is not that salacious or revelatory, and that’s part of why it doesn’t always feel successful. For all the early mentions of the problems Morissette faced when she tried to pivot away from pop (every record label in LA turned her down, we’re told), “Jagged” doesn’t have a single talking head who doesn’t appear to revere Morissette, who doesn’t claim that they got it from the start, who had any doubt that she was destined to be a star. (Then again, success has many fathers.)

Revisionist history or no, those people were right: Morissette seems like a remarkable person, someone open-hearted and interesting with a very clear outlook on life. She was destined to be a star. “Jagged Little Pill” is, was, and probably always will be, one of the music world’s biggest smash hits. She also had her detractors, but you won’t even find their mention in “Jagged.” Klayman assembled a starry assortment of talking heads — including major Morissette collaborators like Glen Ballard, Guy Oseary, and Taylor Hawkins, alongside critical thinkers, Kevin Smith (a big fan!), and even two of her closest friends — but it’s notable who is not there. There are no members of Morissette’s family. There are no early collaborators.

It’s unfortunate that the results seem so pat, so neatly stitched together, so unfussy. That’s weird for any rock-star doc, but it’s particularly off-putting for one that chronicles a performer who introduced herself to a mainstream audience with the iconic line: “Do I stress you out?” Oh, “Jagged,” we wish you would.

Grade: B-

“Jagged” premiered at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. HBO Documentary films will release it later this year.

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