SISTER ACT was released on May 29, 1992 and is of course the Golden Globe nominated feel-good fish-out-of-water comedy smash hit starring Whoopi Goldberg (last seen in THE PLAYER) as a lounge singer who witnesses a murder is put into witness protection pretending to be a nun in a convent and then ends up leading and reworking their choir. It’s not the type of movie I usually review, and I don’t really know how to dig as deep into it as I do on some of these, but I want to write about it if only to make this point: this, the most mainstream middle-of-the-road normal movie in this summer of ’92 retrospective so far, has kind of the same story as the (no pun intended) most alienating one, ALIEN 3, which came out the week before.
Think about it. Deloris is trying to escape from an unpleasant situation (dating mobster Vince LaRocca [Harvey Keitel in the same year as RESERVOIR DOGS and BAD LIEUTENANT]) when catastrophe forces her to seek shelter and live primitively within a tight knit community of same-gendered (female in this case) devout Christians. She’s made to look like them (wearing a nun’s habit rather than having her head shaven) and is unwelcome to some, particularly the person in charge (the Reverend Mother [Maggie Smith between HOOK and THE SECRET GARDEN] rather than the warden). But she ends up using her unique skills to lead them all in accomplishing the seemingly impossible (in this case making their choir sing well rather than killing a xenomorph without weapons).
I suppose the cop Eddie Souther (Bill Nunn, MO’ BETTER BLUES) is sort of the Bishop figure, since she can occasionally plug into him (by telephone) for warnings about danger from the outside world, and then he shows up there at the end (but in person, not as an evil alternate version, and to watch the choir sing and protect her from mobsters, not to capture the Queen Alien for military applications).
Admittedly the tone is pretty different, because it’s all very cute and inspiring, only one person dies and Whoopi’s character doesn’t commit suicide. It also takes place on Earth, so hopefully it did the trick for the people disappointed ALIEN 3 didn’t follow through with that promise from the earlier teaser trailer. On Earth, everyone can hear nuns sing Christian-themed parodies of soul classics.
Goldberg is one of the many comics turned actors who became so hugely popular in so many wide audience, often mediocre things that I kinda forgot how appealing she was. Sitting down to watch this whole thing I could understand her popularity a little better.
The opening is pretty good, cutting from a 1968 prologue (young Deloris outrages her Catholic school teacher by naming the Beatles and Elvis as the Apostles) to grown up Deloris on stage singing “Heat Wave” with her trio The Ronelles… then pulling back to show she’s not some soul superstar, she’s on a little stage singing for bored gamblers in a the corner of a casino. Not even in Vegas, either – in Reno.
(By the way, Isis Carmen Jones, the child actress who plays young Deloris, really captures Whoopi’s cocky smart ass demeanor well. Her only other credit is as a young version of Goldberg’s character Guinan on an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.)
Though she’s getting fed up with her life in Reno, Deloris is used to fancy hotels and fur coats and shit, so when she moves to the convent she’s a brat about it. The turning point is when she’s pushed into leading choir practice. Of course she’s reluctant at first but slowly rolls into teacher mode (it seems like they should’ve said she used to be a music teacher, considering how much she seems to have it down) and pretty soon is so invested in the choir and their events that it’s a conflict when Eddie tells her the trial is being pushed up and she’ll be able to leave early. In the last act she risks her life to stay with the choir after the mobsters have discovered her location (take that, every movie father that missed their kid’s recital) and, ridiculously, the uptight Reverend Mother shows her secret inner good guy by bringing all the nuns on a helicopter to Reno and into the casinos to save her after she’s been kidnapped.
Side note: When she uses a prayer to passive aggressively guilt the pilot into flying them for free I feel that is unethical and sacreligious. (I’ll give a pass to Deloris using a prayer to guilt mob enforcers into not killing her, since it’s for self defense. Same goes for her hitting them in the balls. Also I normally don’t like a hero pushing people out of the way in a foot chase but I appreciate her stopping to ask “You alright?” to one of them.)
As far as the portrayal of fictional music acts in the movie, I do not buy the jokey end credits where Deloris becomes a popular recording artist and is on the cover of Rolling Stone with the headline, “Deloris! – Out of the Convent Onto the Charts.” But I do like the detail that when she returns to Reno the marquee says, “Nightly in the Moonlite Lounge – The Leerons – “Memories of the 60’s” [sic]. I hope this means the Ronelles found a new lead singer and not that the club found a new soul revue.
I guess there’s a positive religious message in here. Vince is married and has promised to leave his wife for Deloris, but then uses Catholicism as his excuse not to – claiming that he went to confession and the Father told him if he gets a divorce he’ll “burn in Hell for eternity.” An actual murderer claiming to be religious, and using it as an excuse not to do the right thing.
Then at the convent, inhabited by sincerely religious people, tradition is being used as an excuse not to do the right thing. There’s a subplot about how the Reverend Mother has prevented the sisters from doing any kind of outreach or charity for the troubled neighborhood they live in. As soon as Deloris pushes her into it it’s like a big old block party (with the Reverend Mother staring disapprovingly from a window).
Of course the emphasis is on traditionalism/uptightness preventing any kind of fun (or Blackness) in their worship until Deloris forces it and proves that interspersing hymns with more modern music attracts people to their services. It seems like Reverend Mother is racist when she takes one look at Deloris and refuses to take her in because “That is a conspicuous person designed to stick out.” This lady also seems to think that gospel and worn out soul hits are an affront to her religion, and announces she’s quitting when no one agrees with her. When they first meet Deloris has to remind her that she is the victim of the crime, not the perpetrator.
But I honestly think that’s accidental and they would’ve done it exactly the same if it was Bette Midler, who the script was originally written for. The movie seems mostly interested in the tried-and-true middlebrow comedy formula of the what-if-[blank] [did unlikely thing]. What if steel workers became strippers, what if working class Irish kids started a soul band, what if older proper ladies made a nude calendar, what if John Goodman became the King, what if Jamie Bell did ballet, what if a guy made shoes for drag queens, etc. Most of these examples (including SISTER ACT) were turned into stage musicals because it’s such a widely popular recipe for feel good comedy. Even those of us who find it corny can be mildly charmed by, in this case, the friendly enthusiasm of Sister Mary Patrick (Kathy Najimy, THE HARD WAY) and Sister Mary Robert (Wendy Makkena, EIGHT MEN OUT), and have a hard time hating it.
One part I got a kick out of that’s not meant as a joke is when some young people coded as, you know, streetwise or whatever, hear the choir from outside, think it’s cool and are lured in, and even start coming to church on Sundays. Yeah, sure.
In general the movie’s depiction of Street Tuffs is as broad and ridiculous as always in this type of movie. There’s a scene where Deloris tries to sneak to the bar across the street at night and is followed by some of the other sisters, who want to stay for a bit and dance to the jukebox. I kinda hate this thing where it’s not trying to be some PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE type cartoon yet it imagines a world where every single person in this crowded bar is some kind of menacing tough guy and they all turn and stare at the nun and start flipping her shit. Some guy in a leather jacket slowly puts his boots on a stool to block her from sitting down. What the fuck is that guy’s problem? Who would do that, and for what reason?
To the movie’s credit, by the end of the scene it shifts to what I think would really happen, which is that the people talking to them are delighted by the novelty of a nun showing up at their bar and dancing with them.
Also I like the punchline of a guy saying, “If this turns into a nuns bar I’m outta here.”
Another joke I will cop to genuinely liking is during a montage when the nuns are selling raffle tickets on the sidewalk and seem oblivious to the fact that they’re scaring customers away from the adult book store.
I’m not sure I ever knew this was conceived by Paul Rudnick, who I originally paid attention to because of ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES, but also he was kind of an influence on me because he used to have a column in Premiere under the name Libby Gelman-Waxner (Manhattan wife and assistant buyer of juniors activewear). I tried to do more actual reviewing in my reviews but I liked how he wrote about movies in character.
I didn’t notice much that seemed like his humor in this one – in fact, rewriting “My Girl” as “My God” seems like something the bad guy camp counselors in ADDAMS FAMILY VALUES would do, and here it’s supposed to be adorable. Rudnick felt the movie didn’t resemble his script and is credited under a pseudonym (Joseph Howard). Script doctors reportedly included Carrie Fisher (POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE), Robert Harling (STEEL MAGNOLIAS) and Nancy Meyers (JUMPIN’ JACK FLASH).
The director is Emile Ardolino, who mostly made movies about dancers, most notably DIRTY DANCING (1987). The success of that one led him to the comedies CHANCES ARE (1989), THREE MEN AND A LITTLE LADY (1990) and then this. Unfortunately he died the following year of complications from AIDS, but he had already finished two more films that were released after his death: THE NUTCRACKER starring Macaulay Culkin and the New York City Ballet and a TV movie of GYPSY starring Bette Midler.
Since this was released by Disney-subsidiary Touchstone Pictures its soundtrack was released on Hollywood Records, just like ENCINO MAN. It would be funny if they tried to put a bunch of Tone Loc and stuff on there, but it’s mostly the choir’s songs and some soul classics by Etta James and Fontella Bass and stuff. Oh – we do get to hear a C+C Music Factory song. That’s 1992 for you.
This movie is fine. It will not be one of my favorites of 1992. It’s about quadruple the budget of ENCINO MAN but I think it fits into Disney’s mandate of the era, making movies that don’t have to be the next BATMAN to be successful. In this case it almost was the next BATMAN, making about $200 million more than its $30 million budget just in theaters. Then it was a hit on video, eventually was made into a musical, and to this day is playing on basic cable at all times that SISTER ACT 2: BACK IN THE HABIT is not playing. Personally I prefer DICK TRACY though.