If Grand Ole Opera comedienne Minnie Pearl and crooner k.d. lang ever had twins, they'd be dead ringers for Lynda and Jools Topp, lesbian Country & Western performers from New Zealand and the subjects of Leanne Pooley's documentary. A conventional portrait of an endearingly unconventional sister act—with roots in music halls and the dairy farm on which they were raised (and became expert yodelers)—The Topp Twins is a piece of hagiography. Reportedly, it holds New Zealand's box office record for a documentary, and the wide appeal of the Kiwi icons should ensure a better-than-average theatrical performance stateside.
Since the early-1980s, the Topp siblings have been entertaining audiences with their folk songs and comedy routines, while speaking out on progressive social issues. They began busking on the streets of Auckland and are now fixtures in New Zealand's pop cultural firmament as well as beloved activists. In addition to concert and cabaret appearances, they've had many successful TV shows and toured the English-speaking world to much acclaim. Their favorite gigs are A&P (agricultural and pastoral) shows, the equivalent of American county fairs, where sheep dyeing is a favorite activity and where the Topps' lack of pretension and rural roots go over especially well.
Traditional in many respects, their act is a combination of twangy balladeering and broad comedy that wouldn't be out of place in a Pantomime show, on a Vaudeville stage or in an episode of Hee-Haw. They strum guitar, harmonize and perform sketches featuring a stable of characters such as The Two Kens, Camp Mother and Camp Leader, country bumpkins Belle and Bell Gingham and snobby socialites Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom. The material entails plenty of audience interaction and energetic, knee-slapping tomfoolery.
Their satirical edge is sharp, yet no one gets hurt. Beneath each ditty there's a real-life story and often a social message. Over the years, the Topps have come to be identified as champions of gay rights, Maori property claims, plus the anti-Nuclear and anti-Apartheid movements. They've never made a secret of their homosexuality or their liberal outlook in general, but their down-to-earth values and love for their homeland has put them in good stead with a wide cross-section of the New Zealand public. It doesn't hurt that they're talented musicians and very witty. One interviewee describes them as an "anarchist variety act." Once upon a time, during their prime, that may have been true. Nowadays however the Topps feel positively mainstream.
Relying on archival footage plus original interviews with admirers and the Topps themselves, Pooley paints an unabashedly adoring picture that succeeds in replicating their brand of fun-loving, bawdy and gently provocative entertainment. She doesn't attempt to place the duo in the context of New Zealand entertainment history, or reckon with their musical training and influences. While the film's subtitle comes from one of their songs, Pooley treats them like untouchables in the sense she avoids anything that might be unflattering or controversial, glossing over substantive issues, private and public. It might be edifying to hear from someone who doesn't care for their act or to hear more objective assessments of their careers. With one or two exceptions, only people close to the Topps or who have worked with them testify. Their parents, other musicians, and their respective domestic partners each get a brief moment in Pooley's spotlight.
The documentary gets its structure from a commemorative concert during which Lynda and Jools reminisce. This event was staged for the movie and not mounted independently, which underscores that, for all their alleged (and evident) universality, The Topp Twins is a very insular project. (Producer Arani Cuthbert has managed the Topps for nearly two decades.) It's also one of those documentaries destined to win a slew of audience awards at festivals due to the virtues of those it profiles and not on the basis of the filmmaking, best described as safely competent.
Because Lynda and Jools are so likeable, and because it's so difficult to distinguish between their personal and professional personas, you're led to wonder about a possible darker side to their collaboration. A passing reference is made to how they're wont to fight amongst themselves, and it would be interesting to witness a row between them, or hear them discuss some source of friction in their relationship.
When Jools is shown battling breast cancer, the siblings' Gemini bond comes to the fore with heartbreaking tenderness. Seeing how intertwined the sisters are, one imagines it would be impossible to come between them. Perhaps understandably then, Pooley is loathe to consider anything that might be divisive or could strike a note of disharmony. Yet The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls would be a deeper, more compelling movie had she broached a few topics that, as it stands, appear to lie out of bounds.
Distributor: Argot Pictures
Director: Leanne Pooley
Producer: Arani Cuthbert
Running time: 84 min.
Release date: May 13 NY