Review: Fanny: The Right to Rock

Year: 2023

Runtime: 93 minutes

Directed by Bobbi Jo Hart

Featuring: June Millington, Jean Millington, Brie Darling

By Sarah Manvel

If you’re ever shed any teardrops onto your guitar, this movie is for you. Nowadays a band of four women – two sisters, two white, two teenagers, two Filipina-American and two lesbians – would market themselves on their identities alongside their music. In 1970, when Fanny first hit the scene, the marketing was the other way around. Mostly this was because they were the first all-woman band to release an album on a major record label (and only the third all-woman band signed by a major). The general reaction to their work was shock that women were able to play as well and as hard as any men. But the world has finally come around to Fanny, and to understand the reasons for their failure to be appreciated in their own time. The talking heads, who include Bonnie Raitt and Todd Rundgren (who produced Fanny’s fourth album) as well as members of Def Leppard, The Runaways, The Go-Go’s and David Bowie’s touring band, deftly explain the impact Fanny had on the music industry in the 70s and how they shaped the music we still listen to. 

Over the years there were six women in Fanny – sisters Jean Millington (lead guitar/ singer/songwriter) and June Millington (bass), drummers Brie Darling and Alice de Buhr, keyboardist/songwriter Nickey Barclay, and guitarist Patti Quatro. As kids growing up in the Philippines Jean and June flipped a coin to see who would do guitar; Jean won, and the band initially wove itself around her. The movie explains the early origins of the group, as the sisters learned to gig as hard-working high schoolers in northern California, before being discovered instantly on arrival in Los Angeles. Their band house was called Fanny Hill (perfection) and was the centre of a party scene that drew admirers from around the world (Joe Cocker and Mick Jagger are name-dropped, as they would be). But there were shadows around them: June’s teenage boyfriend dumped her for being a ‘half-breed’ so his father would buy him a car, while Ms de Buhr’s mother reacted to the news her daughter was a lesbian by committing her to a psych ward for a fortnight. It was hard for all of them to accept how much of themselves they had to hide in order to be allowed their shot at success. 

But director Bobbi Jo Hart is interested in emphasizing the journey of the band and the choices made in light of the atmosphere of the time instead of delving into the musicianship or the collective dynamic. Ms Darling, who had a small daughter, was removed from the band early on at the record label’s insistence. If she wasn’t they would lose their contract, which put her friends into an impossible position. The unpleasant realities of the business are generally glossed over, as is the fact Ms Barclay has distanced herself from the band in every way. So there are lacuna here, but for the most part they are understandable. This is especially since in the 1970s the band faced nothing but sexist, misogynist, disinterested journalists, and the public weren’t much better. The attempts Fanny made to stay true to their sound despite never receiving the respect their talents were due are explained in some detail. 

So the documentary manages to do two things. It reconstructs Fanny’s rise and fall in the 1970s through archive photos, clippings, excerpts from their TV appearances (Kenny Rogers! Helen Reddy! Dick Cavett!) while simultaneously showing how their 2018 album “Fanny Walked the Earth”, with the Millington sisters and Ms Darling as a trio, came together. The footage of the recording sessions, where various old friends stopped by to support and join in, are a charming demonstration of what people can do if they are allowed to. However it’s not all smooth sailing, and the sad twist that the last quarter of the film focuses on is a sharp reminder of life’s unfairness. At least this time it wasn’t personal, but just one of those things. This is not a movie that will win any prizes for originality, but it’s a terrific primer both on a specific band and a specific moment in time, and how the music and the moments of our youth unwittingly shape our entire lives. 

FANNY: THE RIGHT TO ROCK will have its broadcast premiere on May 22 on PBS and will launch its streaming on PBS.ORG and on THE PBS APP on May 22.


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