Ladies, You're Topps
'Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls' opens aGLIFF 23
It's possible you think you are not interested in a documentary about yodeling Kiwi lesbian twins. You would, in that case, be very, very wrong. "Sometimes, you've got to take a gamble on something," says Jools Topp on the phone from her ranch on New Zealand's north island. "If you've got 'lesbian singing duo from New Zealand that's political,' you might think, 'Wow, that's not something I'd want to see.' Then again, if you go, you might be pleasantly surprised, and sometimes that's the best thing."
Until you experience the charming wonder that is Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls, it might also be surprising to learn that the duo is wildly, incredibly popular in their homeland of New Zealand and surroundings. Crazy popular. Icon-popular.
The twins are wholesome and genuine and quirky and wicked quick with a quip. They come with the usual twin weirdnesses: unnerving empathy with each other and those eerie, beautiful vocal tones that can be produced only when two people with identical DNA sing together. And, they are ranch girls: born, raised, and in some ways never left the country-fair idyll of their youth.
"If you can't ride a horse or milk a cow or dig a hole," says Topp of the duo's dual careers, "then you can't call yourself country & western. You have to call yourself country & suburban."
By way of influence, she notes, "there were all these old cowboys that sang – old Aussie or New Zealand cowboys who had a guitar and they sang and recorded something in someone's garage. That's where the music came from to some degree. It didn't come from the music scene. We went a bit further and did the whole horse thing and the campfire thing and not just the song."
"They're gonna bury me on that farm," she adds of her current spread (Lynda has a comparable one on the south island). "They can sprinkle my ashes on the horse arena."
Most surprisingly, most movingly, most winningly: The Topp Twins are funny (very), and they are rad.
Topp Twins jumps in short order from the girls' childhood farm frolic to bouyant Eighties busking, political graffiti stunts, and other misdemeanor acts of expropriation to a more serious, lifelong commitment to radical politics. The twins partake in and perform at endless rallies, protests, and occasional near-riots on behalf of New Zealand's indigenous Maori, nuclear disarmament, and ending South African apartheid; their huge crossover appeal plays a major role in defeating a hateful campaign against laws to protect gay and lesbian rights.
"As we made the movie," says Topp. "It was so blindingly obvious that it was the political history of New Zealand in the Topp Twins' time. It's about how things changed in that time."
Just as radical in their own ways are the characters the two developed as skits for their live act and that took on lives of their own, becoming national icons with their own TV show. Though the twins cross-dress in only one set of these roles ("good New Zealand blokes" Ken and Ken), one could argue that all the characters fit a more contemporary definition of drag: not for their gender-bending but for their realness – their utter embodiment of what they represent. Not since Absolutely Fabulous have the complexity, aesthetic adventurousness, and gallows humor of middle-aged women experienced such visibility: Camp Leader in her strapless velour jumpers, Camp Mother in her twisted drabness; the old-money alkies Prue and Dilly; and aspiring hairstylists Raylene and Brenda offer the gut-punch laughs that come from subterranean sophistication and truth.
"New Zealanders have just taken those characters on board and made them something very Kiwi," says Topp. "Sometimes when a country owns the character, it's quite beautiful."
"Anyone can get up and sing these days," she adds. "Look at Idol. Anyone. There are thousands of people who are a lot better singers than us, but can they do a two-hour show and keep those people in the palm of their hand? We're not singers; we're not performers. We're entertainers."
Opening night film Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls screens Tuesday, Sept. 7, 7pm.