Topp Twins : Untouchable Girls–

Ever heard of the Topp Twins? The documentary “The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls” is completely besotted with this New Zealand duo, trying its best to make sure you will be, too, by the end of the movie.

Though a lot is missing from this examination of the twins’ brilliant career and argument for their status as icons, the spirit of these singing comedians, both of them lesbians and outspoken activists, comes through loud and clear.

At the center of the film is the tight lifetime bond between sisters Lynda and Jools Topp. This regrettably becomes a key aspect of the film that could have been delved into a whole lot more. We only get hints of the full range of dynamics between them.

Late in the film, one of their collaborators startlingly reveals that the twins, whom we have seen constantly laughing together and carrying on, have on occasion earth-shattering arguments. “Working with the twins,” he confides, “you have to get used to this really quick or you don’t survive—because when they fight, it’s like nothing else you’ve ever seen in your life.”

After watching the twins make super nice for 90 minutes, we need to see at least one of these fights or even a snippet of one of these fights or even anything close to a fight—not for the sensational value but to get to better know how these women really relate to each other. Their relationship has to be more complex than “The Topp Twins” lets on.

One of the great treasures of this film is the archival footage included of the sister’s earliest public performances on Auckland streets. It is no wonder that many people stopped to gawk at these highly energetic young women, who looked like clones of each other, guilelessly belting out song after original song like “When the Girls Hit Town,” “Graffiti Raiders,” and “Good Sisters Gone Bad.” They sang as much to each other as they did to the crowd in a powerhouse perfect harmony that even from the beginning came with some snazzy footwork as well.

Just the two of them and a guitar were wildly entertaining, wherever and whenever they wanted to perform. But as time went on, their shows became increasingly elaborate as the sisters began to portray a number of comedic characters, such as the two Kens and the camp ladies. This eventually helped them land their very own TV show in New Zealand, “Do Not Adjust Your Twinset.”

The Topps had an idyllic childhood on a dairy farm and to this day maintain a strong connection to New Zealand farm culture, appearing at A & P (Agricultural and Pastoral) shows on a regular basis. After a stint in the army, the young ladies began their busking career and activism for a variety of causes like a nuclear-free New Zealand, Maori land rights, an end to apartheid in South Africa, and of course gay rights.

Another missing piece in “The Topp Twins” is how the sisters got the musical bug in the first place. When did they learn to sing and play guitar with such verve? In this documentary, it is as if they simply popped out of the military with these newfound talents and a burning passion to share them as widely as possible.

Yet another missing piece is whatever happened to the Topps’ ballsy activism. This film is dripping with nostalgia for the 1980s protest movements but avoids the question of where all that energy disappeared to and why the Topps are apparently now comfortable with their much more mainstream existence. The original political aspects of their act have been for the most part watered down.

“The Topp Twins” briefly covers the sisters’ coming out to their parents, which was, according to this film, not all that dramatic. In their optimistic fashion, the twins breezed through mom and dad’s initial shock and dismay. Sure enough, their affable parents soon came around.

To a large extent, this film presents the Topp Twins as leading a charmed life. Between their ebullient concert performances, the film dutifully follows them as they do one wonderful or clever thing after another, eventually winning over the entire country of New Zealand, not to mention other parts of the world.

Friend after friend, including the always well-spoken Billy Bragg, step forward to praise the sisters’ body of work and attest to their genuineness. But if you are not a Topp Twins fan or leaning that way, this love fest can become a bit tiresome. As in, when is something actually going to happen here?

Close to the end of the film, some drama comes into play when one of the twins gets breast cancer. There is a moving joint struggle to overcome the disease. But until that point, “The Topp Twins” is for all intents and purposes a pretty standard concert film and career retrospective. Not too unique.

Also missing from this documentary is an attempt to place the Topp Twins somewhere on the international or even the Australian-New Zealand pop culture map. For instance, while their importance as out entertainers is pioneering and not to be denied, where do they fit with other gay entertainers from the 1980s, especially those that came out of punk and new wave?

Some of the Topp Twins’ work seems related to well-known North American acts like the Indigo Girls and k.d. lang (especially in her earlier incarnations). Was there any cross-pollinization going with other artists? And what new-generation artists, musicians or comedians, have the Topp Twins inspired?


A Diva Films release.

Directed by Leanna Pooley.

Produced by Arani Cuthbert.

Cinematography, Leon Narbey, Wayne Vinten.

Edited by Tim Woodhouse.

Running time: 84 minutes.