Can the Topp Twins Become This Year's Anvil?
[This is an adapted version of coverage from the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival, where The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls premiered.]
The Topp Twins are more than just New Zealand's most famous yodeling, protesting, joke-cracking lesbian-sister musical export. They're now the subjects of their own oddly fascinating documentary opening today in New York (and May 20 in San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle). Appropriately enough titled The Topp Twins, director Leanne Pooley's doc profiles the irrepressible Lynda and Jools Topp from their bucolic Kiwi upbringings to their development of a populist blend of folk, protest and comic songwriting that made them worldwide cult sensations. Or maybe "cult" is misrepresenting things -- especially when their immensely popular street performances require their own laws on the books in Auckland.
"Even though they were just busking on the street, they got famous," Pooley explained in 2009, when the film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (where it claimed the first of its dozen-plus audience awards). "They actually got arrested. They would go out every Friday night and play on Queen Street. And they created such a traffic jam that they were arrested for causing a public disturbance or something. They defended themselves, of course, and won. There's a bylaw in New Zealand that says any time the Topp Twins are busking, they must contact the police, who will then accompany them."
That wasn't all the trouble they got into, much of which followed some act of civil disobedience against apartheid, nuclear proliferation, environmental abuse, tribal matters at home and, naturally, gay and lesbian rights. Pooley briskly chronicles these milestones and more, paying special attention to how the sisters developed the many alter egos who help their act transcend camp, novelty and gimmickry. (Their Ken & Ken characters are popular among an unusually catholic constituency of straights and gays across class and culture.) The music won't dazzle everybody, but skeptics said the same thing about Anvil, and look where the heavy-metal combo's documentary took them over the last year and a half.
Speaking of Anvil, another segment of the film briefly addressed the seismic event that is a Topp Twins fight, yet was a little short on details. Always one for a good yodeling-twin-fight anecdote, I asked Pooley for the dirt.
"I never saw them actually fight," she said. "But they could be pretty stroppy."
Stroppy! Were they ever that way with Pooley?
"Oh, yeah!" she replied. "The very first time they ever came to see a rough cut, Lynda showed up in the edit suite with a gun. A big, giant rifle. I was really nervous, anyway, because the most nervous moment for a documentary filmmaker is actually showing something. That's the most terrifying screening of all, and she came in with this giant rifle. I said, 'Lynda, I think you're going to like this movie.' Of course, she had been hunting, and basically it's illegal to leave a gun in the car. So she just brought it in." See? Beat that, Anvil.