The film looks back at Fanny, a ’70s rock band who defied racial and gender barriers
Decades before Olivia Rodrigo, there was Fanny – an all-female, mostly Filipino American rock band that took the early 1970s by storm. As they rose to fame on the San Francisco music scene, the group quickly dazzled contemporary superstars like The Kinks and David Bowie, who later noted that Fanny was “one of the best [expletive] rock groups of their time. Their success is all the more dazzling because they did it by pushing back the restrictions imposed on musicians of color at that time.
Founded in California by June and Jean Millington, Filipino-born sisters of a Filipino woman and an American naval officer, Fanny is always praised for her compositions and melodies, and counts among her fans some of the biggest stars of the world. ‘era. A new documentary “Fanny: The Right to Rock” aims to put the band back to their rightful place in musical history by tracing their origins in the Philippines through their rise to fame, to the recent reunification of many of the early members of the group. Some of the stars who cite Fanny as a major artistic influence in the film include Bonnie Raitt, the Go-Go’s, The Runaways and Todd Rundgren.
“The thing with Fanny is that we delivered in every gig that we did,” guitarist and songwriter June Millington, now 73, told NBC Asian America. “Whether it was a dance in high school, at the Fillmore, or on one of the TV shows we did. We were fully prepared.
The film is currently on the film festival circuit and is screened as part of the San Diego Filipino Film Fest on October 14; the OUTShine Film Festival in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on October 16; and as part of the Seattle Queer Film Festival on October 23.
As the movie shows, no one was more surprised that rock music brings together a group of young Asian American women than the band members themselves. An early iteration of the group consisted of June Millington, who sang and played lead guitar, and Jean Millington, who played bass; fellow Filipino Brie Darling on vocals and percussion; keyboardist Nickey Barclay; and thresher Alice de Buhr, who were all still teenagers at the time. (Barclay and de Buhr are white.) Darling, the child of a former military officer and Filipino immigrant, remembers how excited she was when she heard that the Millingtons were looking for a drummer.
“One of them played bass, one of them played guitar, they were my age and we were exactly the same racial mix,” said Darling, 72. “When I found out they were looking for a drummer – I think my mom read it somewhere – it was a perfect mix.”
Fanny released her self-titled debut album in 1970 and followed with four more albums in five years. While fans of contemporary music may be surprised to find that a pivotal group in the history of women in rock was primarily led by Asian Americans, Darling now says that the group’s shared Filipino heritage isn’t wasn’t something they were talking about at the time. “I think when you’re that young and you’re a teenager you’re just trying to fit in,” said Darling, who grew up in Folsom, Calif., And says she and her siblings were the only ones. children of color in their neighborhood. . “We just accepted it, and laughed and liked and played music together and moved on. I think we talk more about the pain than it was at the time. ”
However, the pressures to comply with industry and fan demands have nearly derailed the group on several occasions. Fanny’s members resented the industry’s attempts to give the group a highly stylized image that demanded extremely feminine outfits and a commitment to compliance. Darling, who married at 17 and had a child three years later, was asked to leave the group because of her pregnancy and because the label wanted the group to have four members to mirror the Beatles. For queer members of the group, like June Millington, there was also a realization that the industry would rather they stay in the closet.
“There was a sort of secret ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy that was unspoken and with me my whole life. If anyone had asked me, I would have talked about it, but no one did, ”Millington said. “But this ‘don’t ask, don’t say’ policy has been with me all my life. We couldn’t speak of being Filipino. Why? Because people didn’t want to see it. We couldn’t talk about racism or sexism.
But despite these hurdles, Fanny was drawing the attention of the male-dominated world of music criticism at the time, with many writers noting the high bar an all-female group had to pass. “A male group performing as well would have received standing ovations from the Fillmore audience,” wrote a New York Times reviewer in 1971 after a performance in the legendary San Francisco Hall.
Millington recalled how the group were often greeted with boos and taunts by crowds unsure of what to think of a group of mostly Asian-American women playing rock music. While these shows got off to a bad start, the band were proud of their ability to turn things around. “We didn’t feel racism when we played music,” Millington said. ” It’s really unbelievable. People did not compete for race by dancing.
Darling notes that one of the reasons she didn’t resent the public for not understanding more about her experiences as a mixed-race African-American woman was because of the uproar of the 1960s and 1970s and the struggles that most communities of color were facing back then. After leaving Fanny, Darling pursued an acting career, but quickly realized that the casting agents had no idea what to do with her. “They didn’t know what I was back then. But a lot of African Americans didn’t work in television either. So why would a Filipino be recognized? ” she said.
This prospect also affected the way she and her band mates viewed booed audience members in the group’s early days.
“If someone was looking at me like they weren’t expecting much or if, you know, they weren’t particularly friendly,” recalls Darling, “I was like, ‘Just wait until we play. Wait till you see what I can do.