In a new documentary on which she collaborated, Alanis Morissette says multiple men engaged in sex with her when she was a 15-year-old pop star in Canada, below the age of consent.
The move raises the issue of editorial autonomy in celebrity documentaries, in which a subject accustomed to extensive brand control can clash with a filmmaker who operates on a principle of journalistic independence.
The film, meanwhile, raises difficult questions about the music industry.
Directed by the award-winning documentarian Alison Klayman, “Jagged” takes a celebratory but nuanced look at Morissette’s life, building around a lively interview at her California home. The movie, which The Washington Post has viewed, chronicles Morissette as she goes from dance-pop prodigy in Canada to confessional poet-musician in Los Angeles several years later. It tracks her collaboration with producer Glen Ballard on the landmark 1995 album “Jagged Little Pill”; the 18-month tour that followed as Morissette achieves and deals with the travails of megastardom; and the ceilings she broke for Taylor Swift, Beyoncé and other female artists.
About three-quarters of the way through the movie, Morissette broaches the topic of sexual abuse during her earliest years of fame.
“I’m going to need some help because I never talk about this,” she begins, before plunging into the topic.
“It took me years in therapy to even admit there had been any kind of victimization on my part,” she says. “I would always say 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.”
Who she is referring to remains unclear; Morissette does not name any of her alleged abusers. But she says she issued calls for help and implicates the music industry in not listening.
“I did tell a few people and it kind of fell on deaf ears,” she says. “It would usually be a stand-up, walk-out-of-the-room moment.”
Canada’s legal age of consent is 16. Though it was 14 when Morissette was a teenager, the law states that the age can be higher “when there is a relationship of trust, authority or dependency.”
While the movie would seem to offer Morissette a fresh public platform, the star said she would shun the premiere and all publicity efforts in an act of protest.
On Tuesday, just hours ahead of the film’s premiere, Morissette accused Klayman and her team of having a “salacious agenda.” The film, she said “includes implications and facts that are simply not true,” she said, without enumerating what those facts were.
“I sit here now experiencing the full impact of having trusted someone who did not warrant being trusted,” she added.
Klayman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Through much of the movie, the singer-songwriter, now 47, is an enthusiastic interview subject, reflecting on her years as generational avatar. There is little material that could be considered critical of Morissette from bandmates, collaborators, old friends, pundits and others who appear. Footage of Morissette from the 1990s tour promoting “Jagged Little Pill” is revealing but not incriminating.
With its intimate writing and vocals that undulate from passionate to vulnerable, “Jagged Little Pill” was a 1990s touchstone and one of the biggest commercial successes in the history of the music industry. The record sold 33 million copies worldwide, the 12th-most ever; produced a half-dozen chart-dominating singles; and, eventually, yielded a Broadway show.
Before Morissette’s Tuesday statement, Klayman said she did not want to speculate on the star’s feelings, and she held out hope Morissette would embrace the movie. “It was a privilege to make this film and I’m really proud of it,” she said. "Hopefully there will be other opportunities in the future for her to come to film events.”
An HBO spokeswoman, Lana Iny, did not comment. A message to Thom Powers, the head of documentary programming at Toronto, was not returned. The movie is being produced by Bill Simmons, founder of literary sports website the Ringer, who has a deal with HBO, as part of a series of music-themed films. Simmons’s publicist did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Morissette’s publicist, Dvora Englefield, declined to provide a comment for this story.
It is rare for a documentary subject who collaborated on a film not to appear at its festival world premiere either in person or virtually. The few occasions when it has happened have largely been because the subject was not happy with the final result. Serena and Venus Williams did not appear at the Toronto premiere of a documentary about them in 2012 because they did not like how their father, Richard Williams, was portrayed.
A festival absence by Morissette would be particularly striking given her revered status in her home province of Ontario.
A growing number of pop stars have signed on to make documentaries in recent years, hoping to tap into a fan culture that craves a more intimate relationship with its idols. Many of these stars have been instrumental in their movie’s creation, an approach that may grant audiences deeper access but undermines a film’s objectivity. Taylor Swift was heavily involved in her recent Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” prompting the Guardian to call the finished product “brand management dressed up as insight.”
On other occasions, the filmmaker can strenuously maintain independence, with combustible results. The British filmmaker Asif Kapadia took that stance in his 2015 Oscar-winning Amy Winehouse documentary “Amy.” It caused tension with the late pop diva’s father, who railed against the movie.
Klayman has historically showed little sign of cowing before powerful figures. She previously went toe-to-toe with Stephen K. Bannon and confronted the Chinese government in a movie about the dissident activist Ai Weiwei.
The events in “Jagged” will likely be of interest both to Morissette’s fans and a wider audience concerned with equity in the entertainment industry.
Morissette describes how, at 15, she lived at home with her parents in Ottawa as she began emerging as a television and dance-pop star, signing a two-record deal with MCA Canada.
Exploitation soon followed. Morissette says that even in instances in which there was no sexual abuse, unwanted sexual advances were common.
“Almost every single person that I would work with, there would be some turning point where the camera would go Dutch angle,” she says, referring to the filmmaking shot that suggests tension or trauma.
She adds it would “either end the relationship” or “then there’d be just some big secret that we’d keep forever.”
Morissette’s comments in the film mark a new moment of frankness. The star has tended to speak in striking but impersonal terms about the issue of sexual misconduct. She told the Sunday Times last year, for instance, that “Almost every woman in the music industry has been assaulted, harassed, raped. It’s ubiquitous — more in music, even, than film.”
She says her prior reticence on speaking about allegations was in part out of concern for her family. “Me not telling specific information about my experience as a teenager was almost solely around wanting to protect — protect my parents, protect my brothers, protect future partners,” she says. Morissette has an older brother and a twin brother.
The music business has seen a growing level of attention in recent years to accusations of men, often older and more established, exploiting female artists. They include the musician Ryan Adams, who in 2019 faced numerous allegations of manipulating and exploiting figures such as Mandy Moore and other young female musicians, as well as, in a nonsexual vein, the recent case of Britney Spears and her father.
In another high-profile instance, the pop idol Kesha sued the producer Dr. Luke in a New York court for “sexually, physically, verbally and emotionally” abusing her during their long-running professional relationship. (All of the abuse claims were dismissed.)
A survey by the Music Industry Research Association found that 67 percent of female musicians report being the victim of sexual harassment.
In the movie, Morissette is critical of the music establishment at several turns, calling out male journalists for labeling her an “angry young female” and shaking her head at the pressure she faced to maintain a low weight. That pressure was so intense, she says, that a male producer would count cheese slices to make sure she wasn’t eating them, giving rise to her decades-long eating disorder. Morissette also talks about labels that didn’t believe in her reinvention as a rawly honest storyteller until Ballard and executives at Madonna’s Maverick Records came along.
Also surfaced is how her all-male band used their proximity to Morissette to attract female sex partners at shows. (Band mates are sheepishly but smilingly apologetic about the subject.) Morissette, who otherwise shows them great affection, calls the gambit “disrespectful …[it] just didn’t match my mission or my value system.”
(Morissette was also financially victimized by a former manager who was subsequently sentenced to six years in jail. The matter is not significantly addressed in the film.)
The movie finds Morissette in a Zen place — or what passes for it in a covid-infused time. Perched in a book-lined room, she talks a lot about the past but shows little interest in being defined by it. There are some reminders of bygone eras as she autographs album covers of “Jagged Little Pill” but remains fixed on the moment.
In a poignant scene, Morissette sings “Ablaze,” a song she wrote for her three children, with her then-four-year-old daughter as they sit in her home studio, for “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” during the mid-2020 height of the pandemic. It is a decidedly laid-back kind of public appearance — which, for someone whose early 20s were defined by being mobbed in various world capitals, seems just fine.
The idea that a celebrity who at a much earlier cultural time fought for gender equality is now making direct comments about exploitation could jolt the music business, especially given Morissette’s low profile in recent years.
But Morissette suggests it would be a mistake to think her comments now are a matter of post-Me Too timing, and says it would be certainly unfair to question why accusations were not voiced earlier.
“You know a lot of people say 'why did that woman wait 30 years? And I’m like f--- off,” she says, using an expletive. “They don’t wait 30 years. No one was listening or their livelihood was threatened or their family was threatened,” referring to her failed attempts to tell people about the statutory rapes at the time.
“The whole ‘why do women wait’ thing?” she adds. “Women don’t wait. Our culture doesn’t listen.”
Canada’s legal age of consent was 14 when Morissette was a teenager. It was raised to 16 in 2008, but the law also states that the age can be higher “when there is a relationship of trust, authority or dependency,” according to Canada's Department of Justice.