By rights, the rock band Fanny should be as well known and respected as the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead, Led Zeppelin or other groups of that rarified level. They had the musical chops and the dynamic vocal ability to earn their place in the pantheon of rock, but in the late 1960s and 1970s when Fanny was trying to make its mark they had something going against them – their gender and sexuality.
The documentary Fanny: The Right to Rock explores how the all-female band, some of whose members were lesbian, never achieved the fame they deserved or were taken seriously. The film directed by Bobbi Jo Hart played as part of Deadline’s For the Love of Docs virtual screening series.
“I grew up in California in the ‘70s, my parents were hippies, rock and roll fans. We had piles of LPs. I had never heard this band that had released five albums with Warner Reprise in the ‘70s,” Hart explained during a panel discussion after the screening. “I was equally excited to discover them, but I was equally, equally, really pissed off because I thought yet again, [here’s] another story, especially of girls and women, these underdogs, these stories that need to be told.”
Hart said she realized, “I need to bring this story to life. I need more people to know about these incredible women, groundbreaking women, and to share it with the wider public.”
Sisters June and Jean Millington, who were born in the Philippines and moved to Sacramento, Calif. in the early 1960s, formed a band called the Svelts, which later morphed into Fanny. At various times, Alice de Buhr, Brie Darling, and Nickey Barclay also made up the nucleus of the group.
From the start, Fanny swam upstream in rock, a field – as Hart put it – that’s “historically… this male domain.”
“Those were the dark ages of women in rock. Absolutely,” June Millington recalled during the panel discussion, in which she was joined by Darling. “Brie and I were in the Svelts, in Sacramento in the ‘60s — Brie, do you remember another all girl band?”
When rock journalists wrote about Fanny, they focused almost entirely on the band members being women, and ignored their musicianship.
“Nobody asked me about my [vocal] tone, nobody asked me where the songs came from. Nobody asked any of us what it was, what did we actually play, what were we actually doing when we played?” Millington said. “There was none of that technical questioning, which I’m sure Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, they got those kind of questions constantly. We didn’t get even kindergarten-variety questions.”
In 1999, David Bowie gave an interview to Rolling Stone magazine, where he said of Fanny, “One of the most important female bands in American rock has been buried without a trace… They’re as important as anybody else who’s ever been, ever.” But Bowie was an outlier championing a band that never got its due.
“How did people kind of disappear us, how did they stop talking about us?” Millington questioned. “I don’t really know the answer to that, but I know it’s related to… misogyny and sexism. That kind of cut off our blood flow in Fanny.”
Fanny broke up in the 1970s. But during their time as a unit, they played with intensity and joy, tuning out anyone who couldn’t see their talent.
“It was a great thing that we had each other, that we got to get past that and enjoy doing what we did without necessarily, at least for me, feeling the heaviness of what was actually happening,” Darling said, “as opposed to the wonder and the beauty of playing music and enjoying ourselves performing.”
Millington added, “What [Brie] just said — the wonder, the beauty, I think we lived there rather than listening to every single gig whatever people said or interview. We went to where we were happiest, and that’s what we concentrated on. I think that’s really the key.”
Watch the full conversation in the video above. Our For the Love of Docs series, presented by National Geographic, brings you a new film each Tuesday through December 6.