Everything’s coming up Down Under: The Topp Twins and Australian country music

The Topp Twins
Photo courtesy of Diva Productions
The Topp Twins, Jools and Lynda: There is something unlikely about their enormous popularity in their native New Zealand and Australia.

Today is the second day of my look at this new golden age of the documentary, as there is a perfectly marvelous film out just now called “Topp Twins: Untouchable Girls.” This also gives me a chance to mention something poorly known in the U.S.: That Australians and Kiwis make an unexpected amount of country music.

Perhaps this fact shouldn’t be so surprising. That part of the world was, after all, the frontier of the frontier, a fact alluded to in the wonderful 1969 western comedy “Support Your Local Sheriff.” In it, James Garner can’t wait to get out of the American West, which feels a bit too settled for him; he has his eyes set on Australia. And there have been some perfectly decent westerns set in Australia, such as “The Man From Snowy River” and “Quigley Down Under,” as well as at least five films about Ned Kelly, Australia’s very own hero outlaw.

While Australian country music has clearly been influenced by American country music, it came from its own roots — the ballads of the country’s English and Irish settlers, and the experience of rural Australians. The music is often thick with Australian slang, with the premiere example being the bush ballad “Waltzing Matilda,” with its cast of swagmen, troopers, and squatters, and telling a tale of an itinerant worker who captures and eats a sheep, after which police are sent to arrest him, whereupon he drowns himself in a lake and goes on to haunt it.

“Waltzing Matilda” is about as pure a bush song as you’re likely to hear, but the genre developed to include yodeling, American arrangements, and songs with titles that might have been favored by Gene Autry, such as Smoky Dawson’s “I’m a Happy Go Lucky Cowhand.” Whatever the American influence, though, the songs generally maintained their Australian flavor — one need only look at one of the genre’s most popular artists, Slim Dusty, whose ballad “A Pub With No Beer,” tells of chaos in a small Australian town when the beer runs out.

Or one need only look at the Topp Twins, Jools and Lynda. The two singers are actually twins, and there is something unlikely about their enormous popularity in their native New Zealand and Australia. For one thing, both are openly lesbian, and have been their entire careers, which spans three decades now. For another thing, the twins are unabashedly political, and have been active public figures in a variety of leftist causes, some deeply unpopular, such as their protesting South African soccer during apartheid. The closest parallel we in the U.S. have is Phranc, a Jewish lesbian folksinger from Santa Monica; she has a fairly dedicated following, but nowhere near the mass audience of the Topp Twins. But, then, Phranc is pretty strident (“Take off your swastika,” she sings in one song. “It’s making me angry.”) One suspects it is performers like Phranc that political rocker Billy Bragg refers to in this documentary when he complains that some political musicians sort of beat you over the head with their message. The Topp Twins, Bragg points out, are funny.

And indeed they are — very funny. Over the years, the sisters have developed a large collection of comic personas they can break out at a moment’s notice, both celebrating and satirizing various sorts of New Zealanders, from their amiable gentleman farmers (drag roles the sisters have named Ken and Ken) to two positively deranged women who run a campground who are known only by the names Camp Mother and Camp Leader, and whose personas are defined by their hideous fashion senses and their boisterous lunacy. In fact, these characters are popular enough that the Topp Twins fashioned a television show around them. It ran for three years in the late ’90s and it’s not hard to find samples of their work on YouTube (here’s a fairly typical one).

And so it is that director Leanne Pooley made a film about their lives, and it was a smash hit in New Zealand, or, at least, a smash hit for a documentary, breaking previous box office records for documentary openings. The film efficiently retells the sisters’ lives, but, more than that, the film manages to convey the sisters’ infectious joy at performing, their utter commitment to silliness, and, especially in archival footage, the anarchic, almost punk energy of their early years as performers. These were smiling, round-faced Kiwi farm girls who took to busking on street corners, singing political songs inspired, at the start, mostly by American rockabilly music. As one interview subject in the film points out, on paper, it shouldn’t work. In life, the sisters were, and are, preposterously fun, a fact that is irresistible even to people who disapprove of their sexuality or don’t share their politics.

And the film never shies away from either topic. The sisters are so matter-of-fact about their sexuality that it never occurs to them to hide the fact of it from their parents, or even to break the news to them in any specific way — one sister just started showing up with her girlfriend, and then they left it to the parents to come to terms with it. There is a bit of a gap in the narrative of this story — we never learn precisely when or why the sisters started singing together, or why they gravitated toward country music, or how they came about to leftist politics. But it all seems to connect — their early concert fliers all seem to have them performing at political events, or in support of political causes. It’s the risk of this sort of filmmaking — there is no way to summarize the entire lives of two performers without leaving something out. However they came to be the Topp Twins, their anarchic sense of fun is certainly what brought them a mass audience.

Well, that and the music. Both sisters have marvelous singing voices, and make the most of simple arrangements — they most often perform with just a strummed guitar as accompaniment. They flesh this out with exquisite, unexpected harmonies, dramatic changes in tempo, and a lot of stage business that seems both unchoreographed and and carefully rehearsed. The sisters make eye contact often when performing, sometimes just facing each other, faces inches away, and singing directly to each other while grinning maniacally. There’s an electric energy to their performances, and its easy to see why, back in the early days of their career, when they decided just to tour the country in what they called a Gypsy caravan attached to the back of a tractor, they sold out every venue they went to. And there is something really encouraging about this fact: Whatever your politics, whatever your life experience, wherever you come from, and whatever you have to say, if you manage to be fun enough, people will listen to you.

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