Documentary tells story of Fanny, an unsung all-girl band that’s still rocking after 50 years

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Courtesy of Marita Madeloni

Fanny bassist Jean Millington, drummer Brie Darling and lead guitarist June Millington at the photo shoot for the cover of their album "Fanny Walked the Earth."

You probably haven’t heard of Fanny, but you definitely should have. An all-girl American rock band from the ’70s, Fanny had two top 40 singles, toured the world and won over David Bowie, who told Rolling Stone in 1999 that Fanny was “one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time” and “as important as anyone else who’s ever been, ever.” 

Unfortunately for Fanny, the world wasn’t quite ready for a badass group of female rockers, and the group disbanded in 1975. Members went off to do their own things, joining other bands, having families and opening music schools. But an undercurrent of appreciation for the group began to bubble up in the early ’00s, with some members of the original group reuniting to release a new album, Fanny Walks the Earth, in 2018. 

That’s also right around when documentarian Bobbi Jo Hart was introduced to the group. Her movie about the band, Fanny: The Right to Rock, airs Monday on PBS through common carriage and in partnership with the Center for Asian American Media. The film documents the band’s initial run at fame and glory, but also what it meant to be women — some of whom were queer and/or Filipino-American — struggling for respect at a time when a girl with a guitar was still considered a novelty.

Hart is best known for her previous work with Rebels on Pointe, I Am Not a Rock Star and Rise, a film about the Canadian women’s national soccer team. She discovered Fanny when she stumbled on a story about June Millington, one of the group’s founding sisters, while shopping for a guitar for her daughter.

“At the time, I didn’t know what my next film would be, but then I read about how David Bowie said ‘Revivify Fanny and I will feel my work is done,’ and, I mean, how can you not want to make a movie after David Bowie says that about a band you’d never fucking heard of?” Hart says. “I immediately wanted to know more about them.”

She looked up Millington, who was running a nonprofit supporting women and girls in music, and the two got to chatting. Fast forward a couple of years, and Hart and her cinematographer were welcomed into the studio as Fanny Walks the Earth was being recorded. “We hit the ground running from there, and we didn’t stop for two or three years,” she says. 

The film was meant to culminate in Fanny’s big comeback show, but Jean Millington, another of the group’s founders, had a stroke right before they were set to hit the road. “Suddenly, everything was derailed in a lot of ways,” says Hart, who says she’d been on target to deliver her first cut of the movie shortly after the show. Instead, she convinced her funding partners to wait. “I just couldn’t stomach the film ending on a health issue,” she says. The film now ends with the Millington sisters and other members of the band getting back on stage alongside Jean’s son, entertaining fans with both new cuts and old classics. 

With the release of the documentary, the band is getting another shot at musical redemption. They sat down for a screening and Q&A at the Grammy Museum earlier this week, and then made their triumphant return to the Whisky a Go Go Wednesday for a 50th-anniversary concert, joined by special guests like The Runaways’ Cherie Currie and indie darlings The Linda Lindas. Patti Quatro, a member of Fanny, says the last time the group played the Whisky, John Lennon was in attendance, prompting the group to throw down a cover of The Beatles’ “Oh! Darling” in his honor.

Jean Millington, Nickey Barclay, Brie Darling and June Millington with Warner/Reprise record producer Richard Perry during practice in the basement of their famed band home, “Fanny Hill,” in the Hollywood Hills after being signed by Warner/Reprise for their first album in 1969. (Photo courtesy of Linda Wolf)

Donald Young, CAAM’s director of programs, says he’s proud to have partnered with PBS on Fanny’s mini-tour, which also includes stops at UC Riverside, San Diego City College, San Francisco’s CAAMFest and Sacramento, where the band originally formed. That show, which was also produced in partnership with KVIE, is taking place in a 900-seat theater that’s entirely sold out, proving that Fannymania is still alive and well in NorCal.

“it’s a big undertaking for us to do a tour,” Young says, “but everywhere we’ve gone, people’s hearts seem to swell when they meet the band. We want to help ensure that Fanny never gets forgotten again. I think they deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

‘Older women doing amazing things’

Though Hart’s 90-minute documentary is now set to air across about 97% of the country, the documentary almost didn’t end up on PBS. 

“It was a very hard sell, to be honest,” says Hart. Douglas Chang, then PBS’ senior director of programming and development, was championing the film at the network. “It looked like the deal was about to fall through,” Hart says. But Chang told her “Just give me a few days,” she says.

Chang then reached out to Donald Young at CAAM, who contributed 60% of the acquisition fee. The film was a go at PBS.

CAAM had tried to include the film in its festival last year, Young says, but the scheduling didn’t work out. “Doug Chang called and said PBS wanted to bring it to prime time but didn’t have a presenting station or strand currently involved, and we jumped at it immediately,” he says. 

“A lot of our work is pretty serious,” says Young. “It can be about uncovering either racism or recollecting history in a way where you have to really forcefully try to reinsert a narrative, but this movie has a narrative that everybody just wants to hear more about. It isn’t a film that pulls any blows in regards to how hard history could be, but they’re underdogs who keep thriving, and I think people really relate and gravitate to that.”

Hart thinks that’s part of what makes the film a natural fit for PBS. “I love what PBS represents and how they try to represent all kinds of stories about the American experience,” she says. “Also, a lot of the PBS audience is older, and this is a movie that’s in part about older women doing amazing things, like kicking butts and taking names and making great music. I wanted to show that we can and should always be growing for our entire lives.”

“My husband always says ‘Peak late,’ and here we are, peaking late and finally getting recognition and access to great possibilities,” says Brie Brandt, Fanny’s drummer. “I started playing when I was 13 and now I’m pushing 74, still playing, and only just getting to see what’s really out there for us. It’s a big deal.” 

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