Forgotten rock legend ‘Fanny’ takes the stage at Boston Women’s Film Festival
Before Sleater-Kinney, Destiny’s Child, The Breeders, The Chicks, The Go-Gos and The Runaways, there was Fanny.
The first all-female rock group to sign with a major American record company, Fanny produced five revered albums from 1970 to 1975. But the group’s place in musical history has all but evaporated.
With the new documentary “Fanny: The Right to Rock”, Montreal director Bobbi Jo Hart says she wants to set the record straight and put Fanny – and a recent reunion album – in the spotlight, perhaps for good.
On October 8, Hart and Fanny’s lead guitarist June Millington will take the stage at the Brattle Theater to open the fourth annual Boston Women’s Film Festival. The screening, discussion and musical performance is the only in-person event of the festival, which runs virtually until October 17.
In addition to her Brattle screening, “Fanny” is broadcasting virtually along with five other feature films and five short film programs. Festival executive director Jo-Ann Graziano says resilient women dominate the lineup. The fictional film “Hive”, for example, about a woman determined to survive in war-torn Kosovo, stormed Sundance earlier this year while the short documentary “Point Symmetry”, about two women who connect because of parental alienation, has Boston Ties. The Boston feature film “Memoirs of a Black Girl” is also airing.
After bringing last year’s program fully online, Graziano appreciates having an in-person event to honor Fanny. “I think it’s important to be festive right now,” she says.
Hart explains that she made the film to rewrite “her story” and immortalize a clever and powerful group of women. Speaking by phone the morning after a screening in Woodstock, New York, she says she came across the story of Fanny’s training while shopping for guitars online for her daughter. “I saw this photo of an incredibly beautiful woman with flaming gray hair, wielding an electric guitar.” She clicked to learn more about Millington, who also co-founded the Institute of Musical Arts (IMA), a girls’ rock camp in Goshen, Massachusetts.
Intrigued, Hart began to listen to Fanny’s revolutionary classic rock tracks. “I was just as amazed and thrilled and just as upset and crazy. How is it that musical culture did not bring them to me? She called Millington, who was open to the project. A few years passed. They had a chance encounter at the 2017 Washington, DC Women’s March (Hart saw Millington on the jumbotron, just behind Madonna). Hart says hearing about a new recording deal with Fanny became “the catalyst for me to want to start filming.”
“Fanny” opens with three women in their senior years, long hair flying in the breeze of a 1970s open cabriolet. They play a guitar piece with a hoarse voice, “Girls on the road / Girls on the go / Doing what we do will save our souls. ” June Millington, her younger sister, bassist Jean Millington and drummer Brie Darling – all Filipino Americans and former Fanny members – have come together to make a new album which they decide to call “Fanny Walked the Earth”. In some of the film’s best truth scenes, they sing, riff, write, remember, rewrite, and record at IMA studios.
Their memories trace the film back to June and Jean’s move from the Philippines to California in 1961. Family photos show them as pre-teens, learning to play the ukulele, then switching to guitar for their first all-female band, The Svelts. They describe the racism immediately faced in America and how taking the stage together has made them feel seen, heard and responsible.
“All of a sudden the kids started talking to us,” June Millington said over the phone recently. “Music literally saved me.” In the late 1960s, the Millington sisters transformed the Svelts into a band with the cheeky name, Fanny. Hart uses more than 80 photographs taken by groupmate friend Linda Wolf to illustrate their unbridled female power – a tangle of hair, body, and a baby – under the roof of Fanny Hill, a house in LA that Millington calls, “a sorority with amps. (Bonnie Raitt thinks her male bassist was disappointed because many beautiful naked women were gay.)
But with the thrill of free love came the group’s complicated ascent at an untenable rate. The film shows how once signed with Warner Brothers, they opened for David Bowie and Deep Purple, played TV shows like Dick Cavett and Helen Reddy, and found special favor while touring the UK. Hart recreates the whirlwind with contemporary reflections of pillars like Raitt. and images she discovered as an advertisement for tea with the voices of Fanny’s members dubbed with British accents. She also adds endless snippets of sexist media coverage that attempted to assure readers of the group’s femininity.
Millington says the male-centric media got the idea completely wrong and framed the group in what they knew. “Leave me alone. We weren’t doing it to flatten guys,” she said. “It was great to play like that, like riding a wild horse.” She still wonders, “How could they have been able to do it. being threatened so easily? It drives me nuts, even now.
The impossible balance and the inevitable tensions between the groups meant that the members came and went by bicycle. (Keyboardist Nickey Barclay, absent from the film and most public commentary since the band’s split, has cited his own misogyny as the reason for his distance.) Growing demands from management for a “sexier” glam-rock image have marked the beginning of the end. The film looks back on current attempts to bring “Fanny Walked the Earth” into the world.
Millington says she lived through some important chapters that were not addressed by the film. She met her partner Ann Hackler and together they created IMA. She was also deeply involved in the women’s music movement and wrote an autobiography in 2015. “I am in my third life. [The documentary] focused on my first life, ”she says. The film alludes to financial injustices against the group but does not whistle. And the storyline merges around an unexpected and emotional (non-COVID) turn that jeopardizes a reunion tour.
Until they saw the movie, Millington says even her own friends didn’t realize what Fanny was up against. “People were upset. Irritated. Bobbi Jo pissed them off in the right way.
With Fanny’s members in their 60s and 70s, the film, recent album, maybe even their legacy, face one more hurdle. Hart takes up the challenge of ageism in stride. “The more we normalize ass-eating women and naturally aging women onscreen, the more we celebrate it,” she says. “I want the film to shamelessly celebrate women who just do it and be an example.”
The Boston Women’s Film Festival program flow for the duration of the festival, from October 8 to 17, with the short film programs accessible until the end of October. Check geo-blocking for titles that stream outside of Massachusetts.