Film Review: “Fanny: The Right to Rock” – A Female Band That Cracked — But Didn’t Break — the Glass Ceiling

By Ed Symkus

A documentary about the female band Fanny asks why the talented LA hard rockers missed out on the big time.

Fanny: The Right to Rock, written and directed by Bobbi Jo Hart. It premiers on WGBH on May 22 at 10 p.m.

A scene from Fanny: The Right to Rock.

If you were a record store regular in the 1970s, you knew about Fanny, the “all-girl” band from Los Angeles. Well, maybe you knew their album covers, with the four members arranged in casual poses, perfectly lit to emphasize their semi-exotic looks. But there’s a strong chance you weren’t familiar with their sound because, even though they were signed by Warner Bros., they weren’t getting much airplay.

Still, their presence was inescapable. To be the first female hard rock band in the male-dominated field was quite an achievement. Only they weren’t the first. Long before guitarist June Millington and her bassist sister Jean started up The Svelts – the band that would become Fanny – there were numerous other female rock bands performing on stages around the country, among them The Luv’d Ones, Goldie & the Gingerbreads, The Pleasure Seekers, and The Feminine Complex.

But The Svelts were the first to sign with and record for a major record company. As Bonnie Raitt puts it, in a segment at the top of the film, “Fanny was the first all-woman rock band that could really play and get some credibility within the musician community.”

Looking back on it now, June Millington, her once long black hair now long and snowy white, says “We broke through that [male] barrier. It wasn’t through talking or arguing or convincing anyone that girls could play. We just fuckin’ did it!”

Writer-director Bobbi Jo Hart’s 2021 documentary (which had a limited theatrical release last year, but is now coming to PBS) chronicles the band’s formation, notes what looks to become a flourishing career, delves into what went wrong, and then jumps ahead four decades to see some of the original members getting back together for one more try.

Accolades to Hart – whose previous female-centric documentaries include “She Got Game” (the Women’s Tennis Tour), “I Am Not a Rock Star” (classical pianist Marika Bournaki), and “Rise” (the Canadian women’s soccer team) – for rounding up a treasure trove of old photos and footage that runs the gamut of Fanny’s late-’60s to mid-’70s run. A highlight is their 1972 appearance on “The Kenny Rogers Show,” where they rip the place up with a hit rendition of “Cat Fever” from their 1971 Charity Ball album.

Hart also does a nice job of getting up close and personal with the outspoken Millingtons, as well as their interchanging drummer bandmates Brie Berry and Alice de Buhr (though keyboardist Nickey Barclay is relegated to archival footage and a passing reference that she “kind of disappeared”).

The focus of the film is the 2017 reunion of June, Jean, and Brie, as they begin rehearsals at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen, Mass., for what would become their 2018 album Fanny Walked the Earth. Hart’s cameras are there to witness Jean unpacking her prized 1962 Precision bass, June pulling out her trusty 1957 Les Paul guitar, and Brie setting up her drum kit (alas, I couldn’t make out the make), then settling down to learn, practice, perfect a batch of new songs, and to share their memories.

Topics include racism (the Millingtons are Filipino-American), sexism (reactions to female rockers), business decisions (Warners Bros. was not happy that the band never had a big hit), and wild times (talking about the big LA house the band shared, Brie recalls, “It was sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. It got really out of hand. I took my share, and probably some of yours.”)

Between 1970 and 1975 there was non-stop playing, recording, writing, rehearsing, and interviewing. June admits, “It was brutally tiring. To keep giving and giving in that way was unsustainable.”

She was right. Unfortunately, the film skimps on explaining exactly how things fell apart. Aside from a few scattered facts — Jean became a stay-at-home mom; Brie played with other bands; June started the Institute for the Musical Arts — we don’t learn much about what happened among them between the time Fanny broke up in 1975 and when the band members got back together in 2017.

But we do get a lot of joy, camaraderie, and creative energy in the rehearsal room, as well as some heartbreaking drama when a health scare enters the picture.There’s a bittersweet but upbeat ending and a terrific credits sequence. At least a lot of people will now know about Fanny, even though they should have all along.

Ed Symkus is a Boston native and Emerson College graduate. Among his accomplishments: He went to Woodstock, interviewed Edward Gorey, Ray Bradbury, Ted Nugent, and Kathryn Bigelow, and has visited the Outer Hebrides, the Lofoten Islands, Anglesey, Mykonos, the Azores, Catalina, Kangaroo Island, and the Isle of Capri with his wife Lisa.

Leave a Comment

Recent Posts