By Kyler Plackowski
Fanny: The Right to Rock is a documentary that attempts to tell the story of the all-female rock band Fanny, while at the same time reviving the band. The documentary was created by Bobbi Jo Hart during 2021 for the DOC NYC 2021 Film Festival. Hart is a Canadian filmmaker that has been focusing on documentaries around queer and female entertainment, most notably I Am Not A Rockstar and Rebels on Pointe. Fanny has seen amazing success across a multitude of film festivals, receiving a “top five audience favorite” accolade from hotDocs. Produced by Adobe Productions International and distributed by Blue Ice Docs, Fanny helped this group of female rockers, all played by themselves, a chance to tell their story and introduce the world to “one of the finest fucking rock bands of their time,” as David Bowie put it in 1999.
Due to the virtual nature of the screening, it was hard to feel the crowd energy that this documentary wanted to feed into. While it was easy to access the film because I could watch it on my own couch, it missed the feeling of being at a concert for Fanny and really enjoying the music and story with friends and other fans. Seeing as I was watching the film virtually for DOC NYC I couldn’t feel what the New York City atmosphere was like. I did, however, get to see a portion of the Q&A session where three members of Fanny–Brie, Patti, and June–performed. It was an extremely heartfelt performance and after hearing their story, the music meant that much more.
That being said, this documentary is an excellent film not only for telling a heartfelt and heartwarming story, but also for showing off how dismissive and stifling culture and society can be towards many groups of people–namely women, Filipina-Americans, lesbians, and bisexuals. Throughout the film, interviews with members of Fanny give us insight into how they were treated by different aspects of the Hollywood scene. With the genre being a documentary, the film consists of pieces of visual storytelling over interviews intermixed with vignettes about the story of reviving Fanny Walked the Earth. The smartest but most obvious choice was to have almost the entirety of the soundtrack be songs by the band. This choice not only creates a deeper connection between the band and the audience, but it also introduces the major players to the documentary by showing the three band members producing these songs.
Throughout the documentary, we are offered photos and videos of the band in their youth as they are explaining different aspects of their life as Fanny. Near the beginning of the film, the sisters June and Jean Millington as well as Brie Darling all talk about their Filipina heritage, which touches on the first major issue with the documentary as a whole. The film shows us old news and magazine articles and live TV performances that focus solely on the fact that Fanny is an all girls rock band. One of the band members talks about how whenever they would be interviewed, the first question was always about being female rockers; they were never asked about their Filipina heritage. Similarly, some of the first interview talking points in the film were about sexuality and race, but most viewers have a high chance of forgetting that information because of the cavalcade of different talking points about the band after the fact.
A relatively potent line regarding the band members’ gender is from Earl Slick: “It’s always the ones that start that get f***ed.” Here, Slick reference how many female artists and bands got number one hits because Fanny paved the way for women to enter the Rock and Roll scene. However, Fanny themselves never had that chart topping success. The music industry would not allow Fanny to be known as anything other than “The All Girl Rock Band.” During an interview, Alice de Buhr talks about how the marketing team didn’t know how to market Fanny effectively, saying, “You cannot be a lesbian in Fanny.” In one of the most progressive communities for the time, they were still not allowed to be themselves.
This is contrasted amazingly with the information we learn about Fanny Hill. The members of the band all remember that there were often many “boyfriends and girlfriends,” including some huge names like David Bowie. With all these big names and such a central point of the rock and roll scene in Hollywood, it is astounding that not many people knew of Fanny. But maybe that had to do with the inefficient marketing and publicity often given to women at the time.
In On Record, Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie reflect on how sexuality was represented and developed over the years. Alice de Buhr talks about the inability to be outwardly lesbian in Fanny and we see a similar conversation in this paper. Frith and McRobbie discuss the music and motivations of many artists throughout the history of Rock and Roll, including David Bowie, Elvis and even Bob Marley. They talk about how many women, when entering the scene, were forced to follow specific rules about how they could dress, act, and write music. This leads them to the conclusion that “Rock never was about unrestricted, unconfined sexuality […] the “liberated” emphasis on everyone’s right to sexual choice, opportunity, and gratification” (Frith and McRobbie 331).
We can clearly see this issue even in the current, and much more progressive, society. This documentary can be used as an example of discrimination and oppression, both in its portrayal of the information given as well as the marketing of the film. While the comments about the members of Fanny being Filipina-American and lesbian do come into the discussion, we see this information taking a backseat to the “more important” point that this was the first all girl rock group–and that they were snuffed due to their gender. A lot of media that tries to improve minority representation often fall into the trap of focusing on a single aspect of a character or prominent figure. While this representation helps with that focal point in the story, it often is a disservice to the other parts of that character.
Fanny experienced a lack of intersectional acknowledgment twofold: once during their initial attempt at Rock ‘n’ Roll success, and again while filming this documentary. Because the documentary style relies heavily on interviews with band members and other prominent rockers and utilizes published newspapers and magazine articles, the content of the documentary is going to be more directed by what is visually on screen–most of which omits intersectional analysis. While Fanny technically represented Filipina-American and lesbian communities, that portion of their identity was simply ignored or outright removed from coverage of them during the 1970s, making it harder for these groups to find this representation and bolster the success of Fanny.
While the doc does not talk enough about the sexuality of the members in the band, there is enough to say that Fanny: The Right to Rock at least touches on the subject thanks to mainly Alice de Buhr. It’s quite ironic how when the music producers of Fanny in the 1970s tried to increase the “sexuality” of the band with more revealing and “sexy” clothes, it didn’t actually touch the sexuality of at least half of the members (June Millington and Alice de Buhr). Many will attribute this to a marketing appeal to the “male gaze,” as the major controllers of the music and media industries were and still are cisgender, straight, white men. While this definitely played a part in the lack of accurate representation during the 1970s, in today’s world there is much more access to positive representation and visibility–and we still lack enough of it. We have to recognize that there is still residual bias and a hyper focus on certain minority groups over others. One of the biggest examples in the last few years is the hate directed towards racial minorities in the U.S. There is also still a lot of hate directed towards LGBTQIA+ individuals, including some hatred that I have experienced this past year, which opened my eyes much wider to the issues throughout the world when it comes to these forms of representation.
A lot of fans overall really enjoyed learning about the story of Fanny and either reintroducing themselves to or discovering a badass female rock band. Receiving accolades from a multitude of sources from both documentary review sources to even more mainstream film reviews. A lot of audiences have also been falling in love with learning the story of Fanny. There was one reviewer who took a much more critical look at the film and focused on some of the important omissions from the film. Susan G. Cole of Point of View magazine asked why important details of Fanny’s history, like the Riot Grrrl movement and interviews with Le Tigre’s Kathleen Hanna, were missing from the documentary.
Speaking of the Riot Grrrl Movement, Simon Reynolds looked at the impact of women in music, including a section on this movement that I wanted to look into to show more instances of Gender and Sexuality being represented or misrepresented in Rock and Roll. The beginning of The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock ‘n’ Roll Reynolds talks first about how women were represented in Rock and Roll music. We have seen in Fanny: The Right to Rock how the band was heavily sexualized in the later years to mirror this, but the Riot Grrrl Movement of the 1990s helped fight off some of this sexualization. Like the punk rockers in said movement, Fanny tried to fight off this sexualization, but eventually this was actually one of the contributing factors to the dissolving of Fanny. Similarly to how the Millington sisters didn’t just want to be another one of the guys, Kathleen Hanna is quoted as saying “What other [female] bands do is go, ‘It’s not important that I’m a girl, it’s just important that I want to rock.’ […] What I’m into is making the world different for me to live in” (Hanna cited in Reynolds and Press 326). June Millington has been working to continue Rock and Roll world-making with her workshops at the Institute for Musical Arts in Massachusetts.
There is an extremely heart-wrenching story that plays out during the ending portion of the documentary as the film follows the revival of Fanny Walked the Earth. This sequence is extremely important for an understanding of how these women not only interacted with the Rock and Roll scene, but also with each other. Whether or not you are a Rock and Roll fan, I could not recommend this documentary enough because the implications and messages it conveys are powerful and important as we strive to make a better world for sexual and racial minorities. Fanny really did give so many girls the right to rock–and this documentary gives the band a chance to not only rock again, but also to inspire more young girls to rock out with them.
Reynolds, Simon, and Joy Press. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock’n’Roll. Harvard University Press, 1996.
Frith, Simon, and Angela McRobbie. “Rock and Sexuality.” On Record: Rock, Pop and the Written Word. Routledge, 2006.
Hart, Bobbi Jo, director. Fanny: The Right to Rock. DocNYC, Adobe Productions, 2021, https://www.docnyc.net/film/fanny-the-right-to-rock/. Accessed Nov. 2021
2 thoughts on “Gender, Sexuality, and the ’70s Rock ‘n’ Roll Scene in ‘Fanny: The Right to Rock’ (a Scholarly Review)”
It’s always cool to find new music to listen to and when it’s like this? Amazing. I do like how you challenged the lack of representation in terms of sexuality. I think you very aptly explained that it can be frustrating and that there wasn’t enough. I also like how you spoke of the impact they can have- that little girls can ‘rock out with them.’ For me, that’s so important, because young girls don’t have many role models in fields like this. I definitely want to watch this, now. Nice job!
I really enjoyed reading this film analysis. Plus that was a really great photo that you added on. I feel like the photo really added a lot of significance to your topic. I happen to enjoy rock and roll music from any era because they are considered classics, and who does not like a good old fashioned classic. Really great work with the cinematography and with the lgbtq+ standard issues. I think you did a really great comparison between the topics and the issues. The flow of the film review was very smooth and very easy to read too!