Bobbi Jo Hart’s energetic documentary shines a light on one of the greatest, most forgotten all-female rock bands in music history.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2021 Hot Docs Festival.)
“He was hard as a rock / But I was ready to roll / What a shock to find out / I was in control,” sang Fanny on their 1974 single, “Butter Boy”. The innuendo-laden and not overly flattering song, which peaked at #29 on the Billboard Hot 100, had been written by guitarist Jean Millington about her ex, David Bowie.
But before you assume any hard feelings, Millington felt confident that Bowie would’ve admired her songwriting, the skill having been improved by their year and a half or so together. She turned out to be right: 25 years later, he told Rolling Stone that Fanny was “one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time. They’re as important as anyone else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”
With FANNY: The Right to Rock, documentarian Bobbi Jo Hart succeeds at taking up Bowie’s mantle. The film fills in an oft-overlooked part of rock history by recounting the rise and eventual fizzling out of Fanny, which Bonnie Raitt calls “the first all-women rock band that could really play.”
While Raitt is just one of many high-profile talking heads recruited for the documentary—we also hear from Cherie Currie of the Runaways, Kate Pierson of the B-52s, and Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s, among others—the telling of the band’s story is largely left to the band, who’ve supplied almost six decades’ worth of photos for the occasion.
Fanny originated with Millington and her sister, June, in the Motown era. Born in the Philippines and raised in California, the duo taught themselves how to play guitar in part to drown out the constant racism they faced growing up. (In one particularly striking anecdote, Jean tells us that a suitor broke up with her for a Mustang, which his father had offered him as a bribe.) In high school in the late 1960s, the sisters met drummer Brie Darling, another local Filipina American, and together they formed their first band, the Svelts.
By the end of the decade, the group had made some line-up tweaks, rebranded as Fanny, and signed with Warner Bros. after an open-mic performance at Hollywood’s Troubadour nightclub. At that point, the Millingtons, Darling, drummer Alice de Buhr, and keyboardist Nickey Barclay were all living together at what they’d dubbed Fanny Hill.
That these women are practically lifelong friends makes their interactions with each other some of the film’s funniest.
Once inhabited by Hedy Lamarr, herself a pioneer several times over, the sorority-like home is described as something of a queer feminist utopia. There was always a rehearsal or jam session happening in the basement; residents tended to walk around and swim in the nude; and everyone played a role in raising Darling’s toddler, Pumpkin. “It would not be an unusual occurrence for Joe Cocker to be sitting at our dining room table,” Jean explains, “eating the muffins we made that morning.” (Other visitors included Raitt, Bob Dylan, and photographer Linda Wolf, whose own work appears in the film.)
But it was only sex, drugs, and rock and roll to an extent; there was lots of work to do. In Hart’s retelling, 1969 kicks off a whirlwind half-decade of touring and seemingly constant line-up changes. Archival footage shows Fanny performing all over the American talk-show circuit, recording an album at Apple Studio in London, and struggling—like any band—with the physical and psychological demands of touring. By the time that “Butter Boy” became their highest-charting single in 1975, they’d already broken up. You know the moment is coming, but it doesn’t do much to lessen the blow.
The story is told from the vantage point of 2018, when the Millingtons and Darling have reunited as Fanny Walked the Earth (dinosaur allusion intentional) to release their first album in decades. All former bandmates—including one-time guitarist Patti Quatro; excluding Barclay, who’s said to be uninterested in anything Fanny-related these days—contribute to Hart’s documentary by default of being involved with the album.
The film is soundtracked as much by this newer music as the older stuff, confirming that the band’s musicianship and sense of camaraderie endured even as their former act couldn’t. That these women are practically lifelong friends makes their interactions with each other some of the film’s funniest—not to mention moving, since it turns out that some of their biggest hurdles are still ahead of them.
And yet, the tone of Hart’s film never verges into bitterness regarding anything they’ve been through. Jean admits that Fanny never really had a knack for writing songs with popular appeal, especially as compared to other all-women bands. But Hart, largely through newspaper and magazine clippings from the early 1970s, pieces together a parallel and perhaps bleaker explanation for their being largely paid dust: the world simply wasn’t ready for them yet.
Warner Bros. had few ideas for how to market them aside from putting them in smaller and smaller outfits, journalists never seemed all that interested in the group being largely women of colour, and it couldn’t be made known that multiple bandmates were lesbians.
As music journalist James Lichtenberg puts it, “The fact that they didn’t break through wasn’t so much a function of their music or their talent; it was the social moment, which was unable to hear what they had to offer.” The beauty of FANNY: The Right to Rock is that it’s being released now—long enough since their peak that the band can tell their story on their own terms, and early enough that they’re very much around to receive their long-overdue flowers.