The Topp Twins, in character, offer comic relief and political insight.

Topp Twins Agitate, Yodel, Entertain

Adam Hartzell May 23, 2011

You may never have heard of the yodeling, country-music-singing lesbian New Zealanders known as the Topp Twins, but you can right that wrong this week as Leanne Pooley’s widely popular documentary about them opened Friday in the Bay Area. The 2009 documentary has already made the festival rounds and visited San Francisco twice (Frameline in 2010 and the Mostly British Film Festival in 2011). Its return engagement brought the two performers, Lynda and Jools Topp—who Pooley shows have been involved with the nuclear-free movement, Maori land rights, LGBT rights, and the anti-Apartheid movement—back to town. Below is a snapshot of the invigorating conversation I had with the two women at the offices of Larsen Associates this past Thursday.

SF360: My first question is one you've probably had to answer hundreds of times, but how did the two of you get connected with Leanne Pooley?

Jools Topp: It sort of started with our manager Arani Cuthbert, who has been with us for 25 years, probably even more now. She liked the idea of a film. We talked about a film just using the characters. [Along with their music, The Topp Twins play characters representing a spectrum of New Zealand archetypes, from ‘posh socialites’ Prue and Dilly Ramsbottom to ‘two Kens,’ men who are fixtures one would find at any Kiwi pub down the road.] We talked about a film just using the characters. It wasn't a documentary, it was a film-film. What happened is that once she started looking at all the things we had done in our lives and everything, she said 'Maybe a documentary?' We actually have a lot of footage. A lot of that footage that was in the movie, that old busking footage, the protest footage, we didn't even know that existed.

Lynda Topp: We were turning 50 the year that we started thinking about making the movie. We thought, ‘You know, it's a milestone that we reached 50 and maybe we should do something we've never done before.’ We've done live shows, we've done TV series, we've written a book, we've done DVDs. We needed to do something completely different. We all sat down, our manager Arani Cuthbert (who ended up producing the movie), Jools and I, and said, ‘Well, you know, there's enough material here, I think, . . maybe we should tell our story?’

Leanne Pooley was Canadian-born and had lived in New Zealand for maybe 10 years. It was difficult for us to think who would direct this, who would be the one to put it all together and come up with the idea of how this documentary is going to be presented and look on the screen. It's interesting because there were a few New Zealanders who were going ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ Because we are already well known in New Zealand. Leanne hadn't known us right at the beginning. She was looking at it almost [as] an outsider, going ‘What is their story?’ Whereas all the other directors in New Zealand had grown up with us and they knew the story. Once Leanne got all the footage and started talking to us and we did interviews, this amazing story started [being] established: The documentary was about the lives of the Topp Twins but also the history of New Zealand in the time of the Topp Twins. I think that's the great thing about the documentary . . .

Jools: We're sort of the Forrest Gumps of New Zealand. [Laughs.]

SF360: It's interesting what you just said about Leanne Pooley, because I was curious, when you were filming this, obviously, it's very clear that this was made intentionally for a New Zealand audience. But there are moments, such as when you explain the significance of rugby to Kiwi culture, where you might have been thinking about an audience outside of New Zealand . . .

Lynda: For us what's happened with the film is that it's become something of an education for people. Most people [who] come [from outside of New Zealand], they have no idea who we are. They go, ‘Wow, I didn't know New Zealand went through all those historical moments!’ New Zealand was the first country in the world to give women the vote. When you look at all the things this little tiny country has done, it's quite amazing. I don't want to call them 'fights', they're these amazing 'moments' that New Zealanders picked up on. We want to be Nuclear-free. We don't want to support the South African regime of Apartheid. All of those things, everybody just said, 'OK, let's stop it. Let's take a stand.'

Jools: They were defining moments in our country's history. But they were also affecting the rest of the world. What's really different is that every single one of those fights, we won them. If you win the game, you feel good. But you don't hate the enemy. . . .

SF360: I found it really profound what Billy Bragg says in the film. He says that it's 'subversive' that you are these country music singers dealing with these progressive issues in a genre that's stereotyped as ‘right-wing,’ but you're not, as he says in the vernacular, ‘taking the mickey.’ In that when you play your characters, it's not the ‘comedy of discomfort’ that you see on The Office or, you know, I enjoy [Australia's] Kath & Kim, but sometimes you wonder if they are really making fun rather than embracing the characters, because you clearly are embracing your characters because you know them . . .

Lynda Topp: Those characters are real, . . . they are real to people. When people ring-up to book a live show, they book the Topp Twins, but there's always usually a note at the end saying, ‘Can Ken and Ken and Camp Mother and Camp Leader be there as well?’

Jools: The last gig we just did was all men, 400 men at a hunting and fishing gathering celebration before duck-shooting, and they ring-up and say, ‘We want The Kens to do the entertainment for these guys.’ There's 400 guys in a room and we're doing the entertainment for them. But we can do it. ’Cause we come from that country, we understand them. You know, the boys need to bond. Like we said before, they aren't the enemy.

Lynda: It's kinda beautiful, when you think about it…all those men out there in that room know that Ken and Ken are actually two lesbians.

SF360: I think in many ways [how you don't hate the enemy] is most clear with the Springbok Tour. ['The Springbok Tour' is shorthand amongst New Zealanders for the 1981 tour of New Zealand by South Africa's (all-white) rugby team. Many New Zealanders took action against the Apartheid regime by protesting at many of the matches throughout New Zealand.] You state how much rugby means to the country and that's why it's so important to address the issue of Apartheid during that tour….Are you two involved in the [dramatic] realization of the Springbok Tour filming presently?

Lynda: No. The most amazing thing that happened was actually last year. For the first time again there was a test between the Springboks and the All Blacks in Auckland. They have a series of three games and it's called a ‘test‘ . . . and whoever wins the most gets a big shield or whatever. And that was the first time there had been a test match in New Zealand since the 1981 Springboks. South Africans hadn't toured New Zealand for a long time. So last year they played in Auckland, that was the first test, and they asked Jools and me as Ken and Ken to come onto the pitch and sing. And we sang one of the Maori songs that we had sung as a protest song.

Jools: We'd come full circle. We were singing that song in 1981 to stop these guys from playing. And we were singing the same song on the field in front of 35,000 people and they were here to play.