Documentary Review — A Groundbreaking female band is celebrated in “Fanny: The Right to Rock”

They were the first all-female rock band to put out an album on a major label, a fixture on concert tours, opening for Deep Purple, Jethro Tull and others, and a “novelty act” mainstay of TV musical variety shows of the early ’70s.

“They came along ten years too soon,” was the knock on Fanny, which broke up before ever cracking the top of the charts. That explains why they’d been mostly forgotten, until no less a luminary than David Bowie weighed in on them in Rolling Stone Magazine in 1999.

“One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried, almost without a trace.”

“Fanny: The Right to Rock” remembers this seminal hard-blues/glam band that earned enthusiastic reviews and “proved girls could rock” every time they plugged in. As Canadian Bobbi Jo Hart’s film demonstrates, they may not have made as big a mark as guitarist-singer and contemporary Suzi Quatro, but women from Cherie Currie (The Runaways) to Kate Pierson (B-52s), Kathy Valentine (The Go-Go’s) and The Bangles caught them live or on TV and were inspired to take up the mantle by this “ferocious” quartet fronted by two Filipino American sisters, Jean and June Millington.

That “Filipino” connection never came up in reviews and profiles of the group back in the day, nor did the fact that with any given lineup, half the band was gay. Members of Fanny talk about those burdens, added to the uphill struggle of invading “a man’s world” by singing and playing guitar-driven rock at the birth of metal and glam.

A host of British TV’s “Old Grey Whistle Test” at the time introduced Fanny — whose name was even more provocative in the UK — as a band “conquering male chauvinistic hearts,” one show at a time. Helen Reddy introduced them on her variety show as “The Queens of Rock’n Roll.”

And watching their live performances — Joan Baez-length hair thrashed with early Metallica intensity, chunky power chords and howled vocals, you see what she means and you wonder why they never quite got there.

Fun anecdotes include accounts of their swinging days rehearsing and naked swimming and wandering the halls of the Warner/Reprise Records rented Fanny Hill Mansion, where they let Bonnie Raitt live with them just as she arrived in LA. A later LP’s studio sessions with producer Todd Rundgren (who made Meatloaf a star) got their then-drummer so hot she stripped to pasties, with Rundgren gamely joining her as moral support.

The Millington sisters, two different drummers — Brie Darling and Alice de Buhr — and replacement guitarist Patti (sister of Suzi) Quatro talk about those heady years, the near misses and “almost made its” that decorate many a rock documentary of the “Anvil” school. Fanny broke up for the last time just before their best-charting single, the naughty novelty “Butter Boy,” came out in 1975.

Their musicianship– praised by Def Leopard’s Joe Elliott, members of Bowie’s band and critics far and wide, was unquestionable, with some of the members moving on to session work or playing with tour bands for Carole King, Robert Palmer, Jimmy Buffett and others after Fanny disbanded.

The reasons for their “almost” status are explained as due to timing and producer/manager mishandling — attempts to sex up the act — rather than their of-their-time music.

There’s enough bad blood lingering that one key member of the quartet declined to participate in the film, which tied into an abortive “re-launch” of the band with a new LP back in 2018. That robs “Fanny” the film of its punch.

It’s still a fascinating argument for yet another major omission from the Rock’n Roll Hall of Fame (only eight percent of inductees are women, and Stevie Nicks was inducted twice), and an argument not just for their inclusion, but for a Rock Hall “Old Timer’s/Big Influences” committee to rectify the Jann Wenner/Springsteen & Friends slant that has dominated its nominees and inductees since the beginning.

The band’s rippling impact is undeniable. Members host “rock camp for girls” at a music center one of them runs. And just the other night I was walking by a local Guitar Center when two wild-haired short-skirted teens strode out, giggling with delight at the Les Paul replicas they’d just picked up. From Fanny and Quatro and The Pleasure Seekers to The Runaways, The Go Go’s, L7 to Warpaint, ready to drag an axe through the glass ceiling that Fanny first broke.

Rating: unrated, nudity, profanity

Cast: June Millington, Jean Millington, Brie Darling, Alice de Buhr, Patti Quatro, Bonnie Raitt, Joe Elliott, Kate Pierson, Kathy Valentine, Cherie Currie, John Sebastian, Richard Perry and Todd Rundgren.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Bobbi Jo Hart. A Film Movement release.

Running time: 1:36

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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