‘Doesn’t change anything about the story’: the documentary denounced by Alanis Morissette

Step into any karaoke bar, and there’s a solid chance that the emotional climax of the evening will come from the brave soul who tackles You Oughta Know, the debut 1995 single by the Canadian singer-songwriter Alanis Morissette. The pop-rock song builds from serrated whisper to full, livid belt, a tour de force of uncut anger and sexual frankness that still scorches 25 years after it dominated music charts.

Related: Alanis Morissette criticises ‘salacious agenda’ of HBO film about her life

Though still the most recognizable song, You Oughta Know is only one shade of the kaleidoscope of emotions on Jagged Little Pill, Morissette’s debut album from the same year – a commercial juggernaut and cultural touchstone for female angst that broke ceilings for such confessional pop stars as Taylor Swift, Lorde and Olivia Rodrigo.

For many who came of age in the 1990s, Jagged Little Pill was a revelatory album, radical in its honesty and stunning in its ubiquity – the 12th best-selling album of all time, with 33m copies sold. Half of the track list, with lyrics at turns fiery and vulnerable, unsure and wise, became chart-toppers that still play in stores, on radio, and in a 2019 Broadway musical of the same name. And, as a new documentary argues, Jagged Little Pill was a piece of art born from a few searing years of disempowerment and exploitation in the music industry, a fortuitous production partnership, and the miraculous trust a 19-year-old songwriter put into her own vision despite numerous rejections.

Jagged, directed by Alison Klayman and the latest installment in the HBO Music Box series created by Bill Simmons, is a film clearly born of love for the album, tracing its arc from its inspiration – specifically, frustration with the music industry and the men in it – to creation to its global chorus of fervent fans.

The film’s celebration on Morissette’s talent – from early interviews and demos to concert footage to a taping, in lockdown, of a virtual performance of her new song Ablaze, four-year-old daughter Onyx on her hip – makes the black cloud hanging over the film’s HBO premiere all the more curious. Though the singer, now 47, participates in the film, opening up her archive and offering warm, candid and circumspect reflections on her time before and after the fame rocket, Morissette has since denounced the project.

“I was lulled into a false sense of security and their salacious agenda became apparent immediately upon my seeing the first cut of the film,” she wrote in a statement before the film’s September premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, which she did not attend. “This is when I knew our visions were in fact painfully diverged. This was not the story I agreed to tell. I sit here now experiencing the full impact of having trusted someone who did not warrant being trusted.”

According to Klayman, speaking via Zoom, the two had been on the same page at the project’s outset in 2019. Before Klayman visited Morissette and her family at their California home in July 2020 (which Morissette later called a “very vulnerable time” during her third postpartum depression), early phone conversations between the two ranged from the patriarchy at large, to focusing the film on the album, to “how the specifics of this story can really bring these bigger concepts to life”, she said, referring to #MeToo and Time’s Up. “This will be a story that through hearing it, we want people to think about these bigger ideas.”

Jagged views the album’s legacy through the lens of the #MeToo movement, which brought a new vocabulary of sexual abuse and exploitation, and awareness of its endemicity in the music industry, into the mainstream. The 25th anniversary of the album, written predominantly when Morissette was 19 and released just after her 21st birthday, was “going to be different than the 10-year anniversary, or the 15-year, or even the 20-year, because so much has changed so fast in how we think about the recent past”, said Klayman.

Jagged covers Morissette’s early aspirations to be a dance pop singer in her native Ottawa, Canada, where she released her first song at age 10, appeared on children’s television as an early teen and signed with Canadian music producer Leslie Howe at 15. Sitting cross-legged in a room lined with books, Morissette recalled that it was that age, 15, that Howe and producers at MCA Records Canada instructed her to lose weight and restricted her food, which “kickstarted a massive eating disorder journey” that she’s been “in active recovery” for “her whole life”.

It was also when attention from men in the business turned from fawning to sexual. “I just thought it was my fault, because almost every single person that I would work with, there would be some turning point where the camera would go Dutch angle,” Morissette says in the film, referring to a style of film-making shot which suggests drama. “And I would just wait for it. Like OK, this won’t happen in the first week for this one, but it will happen.”

The shift would “either end the relationship” or “there’d be just some big secret that we’d keep forever”.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, Morissette expounds on these early sexual experiences, which she says she now views differently. “There’s a lot of shame around having any kind of victimization of any kind,” she says. “It took me years in therapy to even admit there had been any kind of victimization on my part. I would always say, you know, I was consenting, and then I’d be reminded like ‘Hey, you were 15. You’re not consenting at 15.’ Now I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, they’re all pedophiles. It’s all statutory rape.’”

Morissette does not name any of her alleged abusers, but says her calls for help, or acknowledgment, went ignored in a music industry not ready to grapple with abuse in its ranks. “I did tell a few people and it kind of fell on deaf ears a little bit,” she says. “It would usually be a stand-up, walk-out-of-the-room moment.

“The whole ‘why do women wait’ thing?” she adds. “Women don’t wait. Our culture doesn’t listen.”

As Jagged points out from interviews with music contemporaries such as Shirley Manson, former band members who sheepishly admit they used proximity to her to lure women, and excerpts from reviews skeptical of Morissette’s talent, women faced an uphill battle in the music industry which doubted and degraded them time and again.

It is unclear what Morissette specifically objects to in the film, which she wrote in her statement “includes implications and facts that are simply not true”.

Asked if she knew what implications and falsehoods Morissette was referring to, Klayman shook her head. The singer’s statement ahead of the premiere “was definitely disappointing, definitely didn’t match what, you know, what’s in the film”, she said. “I think it’s really hard to have a movie made about you by someone else.”

“My hope is that she would feel the love and support and celebration that I know and now is proven is what this film inspires,” Klayman continued. “I just really appreciated that the film is something that really reflects all of our meaningful conversations. The film really stands, and I hope it brings audiences to help her feel that support and love.”

Klayman, whose previous films have confronted the Chinese government (over artist and dissident Ai Weiwei) and Trump associate Steve Bannon, said she has not spoken to Morissette since the film’s Tiff premiere, and stands by the picture as the “reframing” of “a true individual work of art”.

“It was so wildly popular and in the mainstream, it did get a little bit seen as like, ‘oh, this was concocted by the record label’ type of a thing,” she said. “What I love is that it’s really actually a story of someone who wasn’t being welcomed and championed by the record labels.

“It really was for, going in, making this for herself, with a partner [producer Glen Ballard] who saw her as an artist, and they approached it as artists doing a personal work. And then because of that, it hit so hard, because it wasn’t concocted.”

Such evidence can inspire other artists, she added, “so for me, [Morissette’s reaction] doesn’t change anything about the story that’s being shared in the film.”

  • Jagged is available on HBO now with a UK date to be announced