“On paper, they were deadly,” says a colleague at the beginning of The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls. But through sheer irreverence and joie de vivre, the girls—a singing/comedy duo of two yodeling lesbian twin sisters, Lynda and Jools Topp—became one of the most loved and recognizable cultural icons in their native New Zealand.
Out of an idyllic childhood on a pastoral dairy farm, where they honed their folk-country melodies singing to the cows, the Topps earned pocket change busking on the streets of Auckland in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. Rare footage in the documentary shows the girls, with de rigueur ‘80s pompadours, singing their hearts out amid a spellbound crowd of commuters and suburban moms. They fell in to the political movements of the era, protesting against nuclear proliferation, apartheid and sexism and supporting Maori land rights, fair housing and Homosexual Law Reform. One activist in the film credits the Topps—beloved Kiwi icons who happened to be gay—with showing average New Zealanders that gays were human beings. Homosexual sex was finally decriminalized in 1986.
The Topps never hid the fact that they were “lisbiyins” and, at least in the documentary, their public never seemed to care that they were. Unlike gay music acts today, the Topps appeal to a wide swath of the mainstream: farmers, kids, hardcore political activists, upper-crust ladies and queer fans make up a typical audience. Joking aside, the Topps—decked out in their favored country-western gear—even claim their favorite tour circuit is county fairs, where they ably assist in sheep-coloring activities (it must be a Kiwi thing). After the livestock is judged, of course, they put on a rousing concert and lead everyone in line dance.
The film expertly weaves archival footage from the Topps’ early shows and busking days between scenes shot at a recent concert. Amid more-or-less serious performances of their songs, the audience meets their cast of alter-egos: Camp Mother and Camp Leader (a bossy Kiwi matron and her obsequious sidekick), Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom (a pair of socialites well-versed in tea sandwiches and gossip), the Two Kens (one a sheep farmer, the other a failed TV sportscaster, both possibly latently homosexual), and The Bowling Ladies (lawn games enthusiasts Mavis and Lorna). Though relying on Kiwi archetypes for laughs, the humor translates surprisingly well across the equator.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls doesn’t try to define them as a comedy act that sings or singers who happen to be funny. Director Leanne Pooley and Director of Photography Lynne Narby (Whale Rider) create a moving and inspiring true story from beautifully-composed shots and interviews, but it’s the Topp Twins’ lust for life that carries the film.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls opens May 13 at Cinema Village, 22 East 12th Street. The Topp Twins in person May 13 & 14: 7pm & 9:15pm shows. See cinemavillage.com for show times.