Arts & Events
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girlsopens May 20 at the Lumiere in San Francisco and the Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley. Lynda and Jools Topps will be appearing in person at the Lumiere on May 20 (7PM and 9:45PM) and May 22 (4:45PM) and at Berkeley’s Shattuck Cinemas on Saturday, May 21 (7:45PM and 10PM).
“You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you might just yodel.”
— The New Zealand Herald
A prizewinning 2009 New Zealand documentary — the Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls — is about to hit the big screen in the US. Prepare to be bowled over. A long-time institution in New Zealand, these yodeling lesbian twin-sister activist comedians — Lynda and Jools — are a delightfully daffy, huggable hoot.
As fresh-off-the-farm teens, the Topps were the cutest little buskers Auckland had ever seen. Now, as zesty, rambunctious senior citizens, they are beloved cultural institution. In one interview early in the film, friend and fellow musician Billy Bragg calls the twins “cheeky chappies” and characterizes their performances as a kind of “anarchist variety act.”
The Topps manage to blend the broad humor of Britain’s Bennie Hill with the powerhouse harmonics of the Everly Brothers and the cut-up musical pizzazz of the Grand Ol’ Opry. You might call Lynda and Jools a couple of Bennie Hillbillies.
The most successful documentary ever released in New Zealand, Topp Twins had its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where, the producers are pleased to announce, “it won the Cadillac People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary, beating Michael Moore!”
The Topps Twins have been really big in New Zealand for a really long time. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, they were in the forefront of campaigns to challenge nuclear weapons, racial Apartheid, and gender discrimination. They stood up for a Nuclear-Free New Zealand, for Maori Land Rights and for the country’s Homosexual Law Reform, They joined the brave anti-Apatheid crowd that halted a match with South Africa’s Springbok rugby ream by occupying the field — risking arrest and the anger of a stadium filled with jeering rugby fans. Among the first to raise controversial political issues, they were more successful than professional activists because they were popular entertainers who couched their critiques in melody and open-hearted good humor.
Over the past 30 years, the Topps have racked up nine hit albums (from country-and-western to political protest to love ballads) and they have appeared at music and comedy festivals around the world. Back home in New Zealand, the Topps have starred in more than a dozen TV music and comedy specials and two widely popular half-hour comedy shows (“The Topps Twins Series” ran for four years.)
As sketch artists, they are reminiscent of Monty Python. Like the Pythons, the Topps have created a legacy of memorable, recurring characters. Some of their most popular creations include their reverse-drag romp as the coiffed and mustached Two Kens (one a Wairarapa sheep farmer, the other a cat-breeding ‘townie”). In their get-ups as the Gingham Girls, the twins are free to go hog-wild as country music cut-ups. The overbearing character of Camp Mother has her imperfect foil in the nerdy Camp Leader. (Camp Mother and Camp Leader can be seen on YouTube — armed with spoons and pot lids — accompanying the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra in a performance of the William Tell Overture).
The Topps aren’t “lesbian comedians,” per se, but sometimes they can’t resist a particularly tempting joke. In one sketch captured in this documentary, Camp Mother raises the issues of dieting and cosmetics only to recoil in shock when Camp Leader cracks a smile and opines: “It’s hard to eat Jennie Craig when you’ve got Estee Lauder on your face.”
That’s about as naughty as the Topps get. And because the audience always feels safe in their hands, the Topps have been able to raise delicate social and political issues without raising hackles. (This may explain how Lynda, campaigning in her Camp Mother outfit, came close to winning the mayor’s race for Auckland in 1998.)
For the purpose of the documentary, filmmaker Leanne Pooley convinced the Topps to stage a special concert — one in which they recount how two Kiwi farm girls ran away to the city to become buskers and wound up winning the New Zealand Order of Merit and an Honorary Masters of Arts degree. In the audience that night, were many who were especially close to the twins, including their parents, life-partners, fellow musicians, activists and comics. Some joined the twins onstage; others shared memories in intimate interviews at candle-lit tables.
The Topps started out singing on sidewalks for spare change before their talent and infectious energy brought them wider acclaim and archival footage captures the twins busking up coins as street performers. Other clips and photos from the Sixties show the Topps leading anti-war marches and joining sit-ins.
During the Sixties, Ken Kesey took the Merry Pranksters cross-country in a bus called “Further” and Wavy Gravy led a caravan of Hog Farmers from California to Woodstock. In the same spirit, on the other side of the planet, the two Topps set out on their own 91-day trans-Kiwi trek. The tour was known as the Gypsy Caravan. Archival footage shows the twins rolling down rural roads looking to set up gigs in distant towns and small farming villages. True to form, thye traveled in an actual gypsy caravan that rolled down the road with a perfect Topps touch — it was pulled by a small farm tractor.
The only thing that has ever slowed them down was Jools’ bout with breast cancer, a part of their story that Pooley was able to capture on film. Pooley’s camera documents the slow collapse of Jools’ body as the cancer treatment burn away her hair and strip her of her energy. But neither the disease nor the radiation treatments could completely vanquish Jool’s humor or her will to live. And Lynda was right by her side through every difficulty moment. Happily, Jools has made a full recovery.
For all their accomplishments, the twins remain firmly tied to their family and deeply rooted to New Zealand’s farming traditions. They only spend a few weeks of the year touring. Most of the time you can find them on their farms, sharing laughs with their longtime partners, tending to their livestock and galloping about on their horses. But, for a few days this week, you can find them raising a ruckus during a rare visit to Northern California. Try to drop by and catch the Topps on this rare spin through the Bay Area.
Video: The Topp Twins at Frameline, the International LGBT Film Festivalin San Francisco, in 2010
A Topp Twins Protest Song:
“We’re Nuclear-Free and They’re Spying on Me.”