Intense hard rock. Searing guitar solos. Serious strutting on stage with no sexual posturing. These aren’t things you often associate with female musicians. So props to Bobbi Jo Hart, whose documentary Fanny: The Right to Rock puts the spotlight on the groundbreaking all-women rock group that too few people have ever heard of. Credit racism, sexism and homophobia to consigning this outfit of excellent musicians, the first women’s band to secure a record deal with a major label, to near oblivion.
Interviews with Bonnie Raitt, John Sebastian, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott and David Bowie guitarist Earl Slick, among others, testify to the band’s stellar reputation among established artists, emphasizing June Millington’s epic guitar shredding and the band’s unique place in the ‘70s rock pantheon.
But Fanny’s band members, now in their 60s, drive the doc’s narrative. The Filipina Millington sisters Jean (bass) and June (guitar) began playing together in the ‘60s and formed their first band with drummer Brie Darling, the superbly named Svelts, who performed in high heels matching mod-style dresses. That band morphed into Wild Honey, with Alice de Buhr playing drums when Darling had her first child. They were an oddity, for sure, but their virtuoso playing captured listeners’ interest, including Reprise music producer Richard Perry. After recruiting keyboardist Nickey Barclay, he gave the band the new name Fanny, signed them to a contract with Warner Music and became their manager.
At first things went swimmingly. Perry ensconced them in a ritzy California home dubbed Fanny Hill, where the team composed, practised and entertained famous musicians between gruelling stints on the road, gathering fans along the way, including, most notably, David Bowie, and opening for major rock acts. A high point for them was recording at Apple Studios in the UK with Beatles’ engineer Geoff Emerick.
In the course of releasing their five albums, however, the band endured many of the same hardships that plagued male bands: internal band conflicts, total domination by the record label and zero control over their money or their soul-crushing tour schedules. Perry even made them dump original member Brie Darling because, at the time, she was back with the band performing only lead vocals.
But other difficulties stemmed from three factors: they were women, they were Asians and some were lesbians. They struggled to comply with Warner’s dress code; June complained that she could barely play in the skimpy outfits the label insisted on. Fanny did glam itself up, as evidenced by their publicity photos, but that just brought on the wrong kind of attention. They were women and the array of ludicrously sexist headlines in stories about them focus on nothing else.
There was also the problem that, after several albums, including one produced by Todd Rundgren, Fanny did not have a major hit. A single, “Butter Boy,” rose to # 29 on the charts but the tracks never rose beyond that. In 1975, June had enough and quit. Patti Quattro stepped in on guitar, but the band could not survive for long without June. She and Jean were its heart and soul.
They did reunite several years ago with plans to release a new album. With the cameras focused on them, the Millingtons, De Buhr and Darling easily get back into the groove, fashioning more pointedly feminist lyrics and inviting other singers they’d influenced into the mix. Not all things go as planned but June forges on and, recognizing that need for role models and mentors, eventually founds a rock and roll institute for young girls, the template for Canada’s Girls Rock Camp, a co-presenter of this Hot Docs screening.
There are a few strange omissions in the film. There’s no representation from the Riot Grrrl movement, with Hart more interested in talking to all-women pop groups like the Go Gos, whose music is nothing like Fanny’s. Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna would have a lot to say about why Fanny matters. And I’m not sure why Fanny’s stint as back-up band to Barbra Streisand on her Barbra Joan Streisand album–testimony to the band’s reputation–would not get a mention.
But the film does what a documentary should, shedding light on a subject that made history and deserves to be celebrated.