A fantastic new documentary sheds light on a most underrated rock ‘n’ roll band
It’s a quiet Wednesday evening on the famed Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.
The Whisky a Go Go, arguably the flagship venue of this scant quarter mile of rock ‘n’ roll history, has two queues stretching out on either side of its entrance. These days, this is an unusual sight for the historic nightclub whose heyday lasted almost four decades from the ‘60s through to the mid-‘90s. The Whisky hosted The Byrds, The Turtles, Neil Diamond, The Ramones, Oasis and, most famously, The Doors. Over the last 20 years or so, however, the venue has functioned more as a drive-by landmark than an incubator for trailblazing artists, or a fertile ground for new scenes.
This is why it is curious that there is a crowd jamming up the sidewalk in front of the Whisky. The marquee reads “Fanny 50th Anniversary Concert.” For most music fans, this momentous event doesn’t mean anything, which is a brutal shame. As a pioneering all-female rock band, Fanny should be as much top of mind as Van Halen, AC/DC, Kiss, Journey, ABBA, all of whom are also marking 50 years in 2023.
Filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart came to this realization in 2015 when she was exploring Taylor Guitars’ website, looking for an appropriate ax for her daughter. She clicked on “Stories” on the site and stumbled on June Millington, the bad-ass lead guitarist for Fanny who celebrated her 75th birthday this year. Hart was sucked into the Fanny vortex where she found a quote from David Bowie about the group that read: “They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever; it just wasn’t their time. Revivify Fanny. And I will feel that my work is done.”
Hart set about to do just that with her documentary, Fanny: The Right to Rock, a comprehensive film about the first all-female rock band to sign to a major record label and release an album. The documentary has a wealth of archival images and high-quality footage from Fanny’s scant few years of activity in the early ‘70s. It also features present day interviews with all but one of the revolving door members of the group. Rounding out the commentary are Bonnie Raitt, The Go-Go’s Kathy Valentine, Todd Rundgren, The Runaways’ Cherie Currie, The B-52’s Kate Pierson, Bowie’s guitarist Earl Slick who baldly says, “It’s always the ones that are first that get fucked,” and, best of all, Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, who is clearly Fanny’s biggest fan. “They did all the same things the guys did,” he states. The film closes with Elliott showing the Fanny 45 flexi-disc he got with the New Musical Express over 50 years ago, still in its plastic sleeve, in pristine condition.
Fanny: The Right to Rock goes back to the early days of the Millington sister June and bassist/vocalist younger sister, Jean. Half-Filipina from their mother’s side, half-American on their father’s, they were born in the Philippines and moved to Northern California with their family as young girls in 1961, where they experienced grade-A racism and ostracism. The sisters responded with their instruments, which started on ukuleles they learned to play as children in the Philippines. They connected with fellow Filipina American drummer Brie Darling (then Brandt, mother to Brandi and grandmother to three of Nikki Sixx’s children) and with guitarist Addie Lee, formed The Svelts. Motherhood shifted Darling out of the group. After a stint as Wild Honey with Lee and drummer Alice de Buhr, the latter ended up in Fanny 1.0 along with keyboardist Nickey Barclay and the Millington sisters. At first glance, they looked like a stoner rock band skillfully shredding on their instruments. A second look and they’re gorgeous, although seemingly unaware of it, on top of being talented and extremely hardworking. No matter who is on camera in Fanny: The Right to Rock, they all speak to the group’s musical prowess, influence and lack of recognition by rock ‘n’ roll history.
Fanny was, and is, the definition of intersectionality before the term existed. Women of color, two of whom are gay, battling the rampant misogyny of the time as well as the preconceived notions of the music industry—but not musicians, particularly male ones. When their producer Richard Perry was trying to turn June’s guitars down, The Beatles’ engineer at Apple Studios, Geoff Emerick was treating her performance as he would when recording George Harrison. Even with two Top 40 hits, “Charity Ball” and “Butter Boy”—the latter inspired by Jean’s bassist/vocalist and baby sister to June’s then boyfriend, the aforementioned Bowie, the label wanted the band in skimpy outfits, showcasing their skin more so than their talent. This led to June exiting the group, followed by de Buhr. They were replaced by Patti Quatro (sister to Suzi) and Fanny’s original drummer, Darling—Fanny 2.0, if you will—for one more album before disbanding.
Despite the brevity of their active years from 1970 to 1974, Fanny released five killer albums, which stand the test of time. The YouTube playlist of their Beat Club performance, which showcases the group at their ripe prime, has well over a million views. Fanny: The Right to Rock began formulating at the same time that Fanny was reuniting to record a new album for Blue Élan Records, Fanny Walked the Earth (“Sounds like dinosaurs—and we are,” says Darling in the film). The album was released in 2018—just as Jean suffered a debilitating stroke. Fanny: The Right to Rock captures how Jean, her immediate family, June and Darling deal with this setback in an intimate and unedited way. For the viewer—by this point so invested in the legend of Fanny, it’s devastating to watch.
VIDEO: Fanny on Beat Club 1971
The evening before the Whisky performance, the Grammy Museum featured the film as part of their Reel-to-Reel series, following by a Q&A with the band and Hart, who mentioned that Fanny: The Right to Rock was hopefully getting the groundbreaking group, “One step closer to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
The band members shared tales from Fanny Hill, the famed “sorority house with amps” they lived and recorded in, where they entertained fellow musicians like Raitt and Little Feat. Darling shared how she, already a mother at 19, was dumped by the label to keep the band as “the female Fab Four.” Quatro brought up the fact that were many female groups at the time, but that no two were allowed to play together on the same stage or on the same tour or even at the same festival. Darling mentioned not fitting into any ethnic box and feeling invisible. Said June, “They couldn’t recognize that we were Filipina, much less that we were gay. To realize that we were girls playing and Filipina, that would have been enough for me.” Perhaps the best quote of the evening was also from June who said, “We created the Fanny frame and we stepped into it and slowly but surely, we filled in that frame.”
Back at The Whisky the following evening, at Fanny’s 50th Anniversary Concert, Jean is front and center, albeit in a wheelchair. She is flanked by June and Quatro, as well as her son Lee and Mia, an accomplished musician from June’s Institute of Musical Arts, a nonprofit supporting women in music. Darling and de Buhr take turns holding down the backbeat and playing percussion. Jean belts it out like she did 50 years ago and to watch the other members of Fanny rip on their instruments, you’d think no time had passed at all. There is a lot of lot of flowing white hair on stage—the evening is, after all, sponsored by AARP, which many attendees are eligible to join. But the audience is filled with just as many young people, a good number of them women.
The Linda Lindas reflect the youthful contingent as they join Fanny on stage along with the aforementioned Valentine and Currie. For only having had two days’ rehearsal, their well-honed chops are working in overdrive and their stops and restarts make the evening seem all that much more of a special occasion. This is the crowd’s band and, the crowd, in turn, belongs to Fanny.
VIDEO: Fanny: The Right To Rock official trailer