A film review by Joey Nolfi, originally published in the Pittsburgh Post Gazette 6/16/2011
“On paper, they should not work. On paper, they should be commercial death.” Such are the words carefully spoken by an interviewee within “Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls,” a sweetly sophisticated documentary opening Friday at the Harris Theater, Downtown.
The duo supposedly headed for a harsh mainstream demise is comprised of Jools and Lynda Topp, two of the most iconic women on the international music front you’ve probably never heard of.
The Topp Twins have favored guitars to guns for the better part of New Zealand’s recent history, driving their sociopolitical message into the hearts of the country with their down-to-earth demeanor, plaid attire, and homespun neighborly hospitality you’d think was only accessible this side of Tennessee.
While the Topps’ messages remain altogether unintimidating, it would be a boldfaced lie to say the pair doesn’t come as a tough sell to those not familiar with New Zealand. Or yodeling. Or liberal offbeat subcultures.
To sum up the Topp Twins in an easily digestible, commercially pleasing way would be difficult and a complete disservice to their legacy of social commentary, something the film and its director, Leanne Pooley, work very hard to preserve for those quick to write them off as a quirky foreign novelty.
But, in a nutshell, the Topp Twins are lesbian sisters who market themselves within a package of yodeling and cross-dressing tied together with a country melody ribbon.
They could very easily be perceived by a U.S. audience as intruding on the “American” ideals of country music, which Ms. Pooley undoubtedly foresaw as a frustration to conservative traditionalists, but then again those aren’t the people who will be watching this film. So she edited in some of the Topps’ anti-American jabs for good measure.
But purely in terms of the art, Ms. Pooley succeeds at exposing an audience to entirely unfamiliar territory, sort of like the first cold read of an actor’s script. But a quick affection is learned through Ms. Pooley’s lens, one that immerses an initially alienated audience within the world the Topp Twins have expertly crafted for themselves within a mainstream culture that begged them to fail.
The film itself follows a classic concert documentary format; segments from a Topp Twins concert are interspersed within archival footage tracing New Zealand’s history, including uprisings against laws banning homosexuality to similar backlash concerning nuclear experimentation.
No matter what sort of turmoil blossomed throughout Kiwi history, a Topp Twins duet always accompanied. It’s this sort of bond the sisters formed with the public that makes them so endearing.
Ms. Pooley’s work showcases a clear affection for her subjects, but it’s her depiction of the twins’ enticing qualities that makes the film itself a bit hard to judge as, well, a film.
As the sisters croon their subdued ideals it’s hard not to fall in love with their laid-back, care-free lyrical presentation that ultimately serves as relevant New Zealand social commentary.
It’s these enchanting moments that beg to question whether you’re falling in love with a film or simply its subjects. At times it’s only the sisters. At times it’s the beautiful juxtapositions that only the moving picture can accomplish. And sometimes it’s both, creating a diverse yet uneven depiction that could have worked just as well as a simple concert film.
Ms. Pooley’s most effective decision is perhaps her unwillingness to indulge what would be the best “selling point” of the film, but thankfully the sisters’ sexuality is not exploited as a defining trait.
Instead it’s elicited when necessary, whether that be to flesh out lyrical inspiration or to facilitate the film’s brief segment documenting gay rights history in New Zealand. But the sisters are never objectified by the lens that views them, a wise directorial decision that helps to cement the twins as artists versus figures.
The word “untouchable” is predictably something delicately observed throughout “Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls,” yet it’s also wholeheartedly underscored by Ms. Pooley’s intimate direction, which allows these legendary women to become altogether more tangible for an unfamiliar audience.