Bobbi Jo Hart's DOXA entry proves that Fanny earned the right to rock in the '70s
There's no shortage of music films to see at this year's DOXA Documentary Film Festival, which streams online from May 6 to 16. You've got Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliché, a look at the life of the first mainstream Black woman in British punk rock; Sisters with Transistors, about the history of women in electronic music; and the world premiere of The Rumba Kings, which celebrates the rich tradition of Congolese rumba.
Also worth considering is Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson's doc on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised), which recently won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
And then there's Fanny: The Right to Rock, which gets the inside scoop on the first all-female rock band to release albums on a major label. If you've never heard of Fanny, don't be too surprised. The way the groundbreaking quartet was overlooked in the history of rock 'n' roll—despite releasing five acclaimed LPs and developing a sound that blew the socks off none other than David Bowie—is the main thrust of writer-director Bobbi Jo Hart's film.
Hart first got the idea for the doc five years ago when she was looking to buy a guitar for her music-crazed 12-year-old daughter. On the Taylor Guitars website she saw a section titled "Stories" and, as she explains on the line from her home in Montreal, that word is like candy to a documentary filmmaker. She had no choice but to click on it.
"I opened it up," she recalls, "and up popped this photo of this amazing woman with silver hair holding an incredible vintage electric guitar, and it was [Fanny guitarist-vocalist] June Millington. Underneath it was the whole story of Fanny and I read it and my mouth just literally dropped. I was equally thrilled and upset, because I grew up in California as a preteen in the seventies, and my parents were hippies—they were into all the best rock 'n' roll that was going around, you know. They had piles of LPs, and when I discovered Fanny I just thought, 'How come their LP was not on the pile? How come it was not played on our record player when I was growing up?' California is where they formed, and where they launched.
"And so I just realized, 'Okay, every film I've done since my career started 25 years ago, they're all about untold stories, or marginalized communities, or just regular people doing extraordinary things that deserve to be part of our collective history—our collective 'herstory', if you will. I just wanted to keep shining the light on these underdogs."
Hart found more incentive to tell the band's tale when she read a quote from David Bowie in the millennial issue of Rolling Stone. In a story in which famous people were asked what they thought needed to be remembered about the last century, the Thin White Duke had chosen Fanny and claimed they "were one of the finest fucking bands of their time". (Hart attempted to contact Bowie for the film, but at that point he was in the final year of his life, and focused entirely on making his last album.)
The director had no problem finding other famous musicians who would appear on camera and testify to the importance of Fanny's role in rock. Bonnie Raitt was good friends with the original band members—which also included June Millington's bassist-vocalist sister Jean, keyboardist-vocalist Nickey Barclay, and drummer-vocalist Alice de Buhr—and Def Leppard frontman Joe Elliott is a longtime fan who was blown away by their music as a kid. Other rockers featured in the doc analyzing Fanny's perplexing lack of notoriety include Todd Rundgren, who produced their fourth album, Cherie Currie from the Runaways, and former Bowie guitarist Earl Slick.
"It's really surprising to me that they didn't get more recognition," says Hart, whose film also covers the 2018 return to recording of the Millington sisters and former drummer Brie Darling. "Their fifth album had their highest-charting song, 'Butter Boy', which was written by Jean Millington and based on her relationship with David Bowie. It got to #29 on Billboard, so they were just on the cusp of breaking through when the band fell apart. They were so, so close. I think if they'd have hung together a few more years they would have broken through.
"So it's a mystery to me why they aren't better remembered. And that's what I guess I was trying to explore through the film, asking these people 'Why? Why?' And at the end of the day I think that ultimately they were just ahead of their time. You know, Earl Slick says it best: 'It's always the ones that start it that get fucked.' Excuse the F-word."