Thanks so much to reader (and dear friend) Rebecca for this great review of Untouchable Girls.
I was surprised to find myself so moved by Leanne Pooley’s documentary about the lives and careers of the Topp Twins. Maybe its an age thing – as a schoolgirl in the eighties I was a bit too young to be fully aware of their role of troubadours of the protest movement. The Topp Twins I knew were in their late nineties TV carnation – Camp Leader and Mother, Ken and Ken etc. Lots of fun, obviously, but it’s a very small part of the picture of their lives and careers.
What Untouchable Girls showed me was how closely connected Jools and Lynda Topp were to every social movement I have romanticised from the first half of the eighties (being too young to have experienced them). Nostalgia, clearly, is not as good as it used to be – and the documentary pandered to my still-recovering-from-the-election yearning for a bit of old school mass social movements that actually achieved their goals!
So the Topps’ story runs parallel to the story of New Zealand growing up politically. From their positively idyllic Waikato farming childhood, the Topp Twins found their yodelling musical voice as the left in New Zealand found a voice on issues that continue to define us.
The film uses a nice structure to tell the story of these iconic women’s lives - a concert featuring guest appearances and an all-star audience is interspersed with archival footage, interviews with Jools and Lynda in and out of character, as well as with other important people from their lives.
The Topp Twins reminisce about their very hands on participation at Bastion Point (clearly, what the left needs is more farmers daughters prepared to get their hands dirty and less sociology students) and sing Nga Iwi E with Mereana Pitman, who stood shoulder to shoulder with them on the field stopping the infamous Springbok test in Hamilton. They lend their tuxedo clad support to Fran Wilde’s Homosexual Law Reform bill, and also help provide the soundtrack to the anti-nuclear movement (despite their own early days in the army – meeting interesting people and learning how to kill them!).
Of course, its not just the Topp Twins’ political activism that features in this very warm and funny film – it also tells their personal stories. We meet their partners and see their home lives – and Lynda’s role as a ladies woman comes through as she jokes about her affect on married woman. And, at the emotional heart of the film, we get a searingly personal look at Jools’s recent battle with breast cancer. The twins bravely take us right into the chemotherapy room, and a the sisters talk about the comfort they take in the simple country life they cherish and have seemingly never been tempted to abandon.
Ultimately, the film taught me an important lesson about how these wonderful women were able to combine their leadership in some of our most controversial divisive political movements with a wonderful knack of being able to relate to and connect with people who surely were among their staunchest political opponents – ordinary rural folk.