‘Fanny: The Right to Rock’ review: Forgotten Early ’70s Female Rockers

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Fanny should have entered the history books immediately. They were, as longtime supporter Bonnie Raitt puts it, “the first all-woman rock band that could really play, and really get some credibility in the musician community.” They also released several major-label albums, toured extensively and were a principally Filipina American act in the primarily white-male landscape of early 1970s rock. Yet somehow they went from also-rans to a footnote, then a reclamation project that even champions of pioneering women in music tended to overlook.

Fortunately, the original members are still alive and more or less kicking (out the jams, of course) 50 years later, making Canadian documentarian Bobbi Jo Hart’s “Fanny: The Right to Rock” an overdue appreciation that its subjects clearly relish. They’ve since become mentors to young female musicians, and this tribute should have considerable appeal to latter-day artists and fans who value such trailblazing role models — but believed there weren’t any, really, at least before Joan Jett, Heart or Suzi Quatro. It’s a very enjoyable film with strong prospects in various formats after its Hot Docs premiere. Blue Ice Docs has already picked it up for Canadian distribution.

A self-described “bunch of hands-on chicks,” Fanny was formed by the Millington sisters, self-taught musicians who started taking those abilities seriously when a high school talent show raised their hitherto rock-bottom social stature. Raised by a native mother and American father in the Philippines, unaware of racial prejudice until the family moved to California in 1961, they were eager to seize any advantage in a suburban milieu where their looks made them outsiders.

They were still teens when they began getting real gigs as “all-girl rock ’n’ roll band” The Svelts, performing Top 40 covers. The death knell for that incarnation was sounded by (among other things) drummer Brie Darling’s exit to raise a child. But with her replacement Alice de Buhr, lead guitar June and bassist Jean Millington moved to Los Angeles in 1969, determined to either “make it” in the music industry or quit if they failed to.

A one-shot gig at the famed Troubador got them signed by star-making producer Richard Perry, who was “immediately taken with their musicianship and maturity.” Soon they were recording an eponymous 1970 debut album for Warner/Reprise, with Nickey Barclay on board as keyboardist, as well as another singer and songwriter in a band packed with them. (Purportedly unwilling to discuss her erstwhile Fanny affiliation, Barclay is the sole key member not interviewed here, and is seen only in archival clips.) Darling also returned for a spell as an additional percussionist, until management decided the act should remain a strict quartet.

Living together in a communal “sorority with electric guitars” they dubbed Fanny Hill (movie star Hedy Lamarr’s former home), Fanny enjoyed the full sex,drugs, rock ‘n’ roll counterculture dream of the cultural moment. But they also worked relentlessly hard, not just in the studio but as an opener for acts like Humble Pie, Deep Purple, Slade and Jethro Tull, requiring themselves to “give 100%” every time out. They appeared on numerous TV programs, including variety shows hosted by Kenny Rogers, Helen Reddy and Dick Cavett, which excerpts provide some of the most exciting performance footage here. Touring in the U.K. (and recording at Apple Studios) earned them a major following there.

But in the U.S., they stubbornly failed to “break.” It didn’t help that the press, while largely sympathetic, nonetheless perpetually cast them as a gender novelty swimming upstream. (Strangely, their equally distinguishing Filipino heritage was barely noted.) While they consistently won over resistant “show us yer tits”-shouting audiences, the mainstream was simply not yet ready for a female hard-rock act. And their underselling records arguably didn’t capture Fanny’s energy and grit in concert. Money woes, personnel changes, a label change, pressures to “dress sexier” (and for lesbian members to stay in the closet), et al. led to the group’s official demise in 1975.

Still, they weren’t entirely forgotten — at least not by David Bowie, who dated Jean for a year but continued singing the band’s praises for many years afterward. Still-with-us musicians aping those sentiments here include members of the Runaways, Def Leppard, Go-Gos and B-52’s, plus John Sebastian and Todd Rundgren (who produced one Fanny long-player).

The primary voices here, however, are the Millingtons themselves, as well as Darling, who have all been involved in mentoring aspiring female rockers over the years. As long-dormant attention gears up toward the 50th anniversary of Fanny’s founding, they reunite (joined by some other ex-members and famous fans) to record a new album as Fanny Walked the Earth.

These later activities are admittedly less compelling than the Me Decade flashbacks, even with the drama of a serious health emergency that postpones a planned comeback tour. But “Fanny: The Right to Rock” remains thoroughly engaging thanks to the demonstrable talent and brassy forthrightness of its central personalities. There’s no whiff of “nostalgia act” to their current music — these women are born rock lifers who clearly never stopped evolving creatively, even if the hoped-for commercial rewards never quite arrived.

Hart (“Rebels on Pointe,” “She Got Game”) has assembled a slick and lively narrative with sharp input from editor Catherine Legault. The highlights among voluminous archival materials tapped are high-quality TV clips. They not only underline Fanny’s magnetism as a live act, but also feature such time-warp moments as country star Rogers introducing them as “another one of those long-haired groups you’ve heard about.”

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