Every film requires a period of adjustment, a what-have-we-here moment when we figure out exactly who and what it is we're watching. Most movies take a few scenes to process. Now and then, however, we encounter an enterprise whose purpose only becomes evident late in the proceedings.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls is a prime example of the latter - an all-day sucker of a classification puzzle and the happily diffuse story of Lynda and Jools Topp, yodelling New Zealand lesbian, comedian, country-singing political activists.
The women, who have been performing professionally together for more than 30 years (and can dance like the dickens) also do a little horse farming on the side.
Once the twins did a tractor tour of New Zealand, driving from small town to town, performing sold-out engagements at country fairs. Rural fans loved how the sisters dressed up and acted weird.
But here's the thing: The strange people on display weren't the yodelling lesbian twins. No, Lynda and Jools amused the local crowds by dressing up and behaving like them.
Over the years, the singing siblings have created characters out of the everyday folks who turn up at their shows. Like prowling ladies' men farmers, Ken Smythe and Ken Moller (pronounced: can maul her). In big cities, Christchurch, say, the Topps turn themselves into nose-in-the-air socialites, Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom.
Every performer has little tricks to get an audience on their side. Through their career, the Topp Twins have pulled off a brilliantly subversive (and completely unconscious, it seems) con that helped change the culture of their native land.
Playing to conservative audiences - country-music fans - the Topps affectionately satirized and celebrated rural and small-town idiosyncrasies, as if to say "You're weird, but we love you anyway." Audiences got the message without thinking twice. Former New Zealand prime minister Helen Clark suggests that the Topps have been instrumental in changing her country's attitude to gays.
Winnipeg-raised, New Zealand filmmaker Leanne Pooley's meditation on the Topps's career features a generous amount of concert footage, including of their early 1980s days as barnstorming buskers - new wavers with skinny ties and mullets perfecting Everly Brothers harmonies. The documentary also has smart commentary by the likes of folk-singer activist Billy Bragg and baffled, but inevitably kind and supportive remarks by the girls' farmer parents.
While the subject matter of The Topp Twins: The Untouchable Girls makes it can't-miss entertainment for the Kiwi curious and the Lillith Fair crowd, anyone who likes people-watching will enjoy seeing Lynda and Jools Topp fool around and make each other laugh.
The documentary follows the twins back in time and around the world, entertaining fans. Their real audience and inspiration, however, remains each other. Lynda's and Jools's lives have been an exercise in joyous, kidding, two-part harmony. It's a great act that makes for a spry, likeable movie.
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls
- Directed by Leanne Pooley
- Featuring Lynda Topp and Jools Topp
- Classification: PG
The Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls opens for a limited run Thursday at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.
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