How did I not see Sister Act until yesterday? It came out in 1992 yet for some reason I only came across it 24 hours ago after my girlfriend suggested I see it. At first I thought, “What is she…fucking crazy?” However, after watching it I realize why she suggested it: she knew I’d love it. But what would make a nitwit like me, a fan of science fiction, horror, and Showgirls embrace Sister Act? I believe my veneration for the film isn’t linked to any surplus of quality but instead to its absurdity and potential irreverence. It also co-stars Kathy Najimy.
Beginning in a Catholic school classroom in the late 1960s, we’re introduced to protagonist Deloris Van Cartier (Whoopi Goldberg) as a defiant youth. When asked whether she can name the 12 Apostles, she spouts off, “John, Paul, George, and Ringo,” and later cites Elvis as another addition to Jesus’ entourage. Told she’ll end up in hell (or something like that), the film fast forwards to 20+ years where we find Deloris singing Motown songs in a Reno casino. Nobody’s paying attention and she shows little enthusiasm for her performance. We then find out she’s having an extramarital affair with a mobster named Vincent (Harvey Keitel). Eventually she witnesses Vinnie and his goons murdering somebody, goes to the police after escaping a minor barrage of bullets, and ends up in a San Francisco convent. It’s unfortunate for Deloris it’ll take about two months before she can appear as the prosecution’s star witness in Vinnie’s murder trial and she’s stuck with the nuns. Wackiness ensues, Deloris changes the church choir from a ragtag group into a singing powerhouse, and eventually the bad guys get their comeuppance. Also, the pope attends a special performance by the choir at the film’s end.
Doesn’t sound that good does it? Actually, it isn’t. Nevertheless, what Sister Act is missing in quality it makes up for in absurdity. For the first 45 minutes or so Sister Act isn’t much more than a mediocre film about a lounge singer hiding out from the mob; where it takes a turn for the better is when Deloris (now dubbed Sister Mary Clarence) takes charge of the choir and injects a little soul into it. The choir’s first introduction depicts them as horribly off key, rambling, and falling over each other; apparently all it takes is a little Whoopi for them to become a worldwide phenomenon.
Whoopi’s primary antagonist at the nunnery is the Reverend Mother (Maggie Smith), who believes progressive convents are useless and the world outside the church walls is a den of sin. I’m not disagreeing with her, since I personally believe we live in the Era Vulgaris, but within the story she is sorely mistaken. These women became nuns because they wanted to help those less fortunate and with sin, not pray all day and walk around somberly. With Deloris’ help these nuns find their voices and begin actively taking part in their decrepit community, sprucing up the church and turning low attendance numbers around. A high quality comedy montage where the sisters go out into the community, dancing with tweens (and doing ‘90s dances like the Running Man) and blocking pornography shops, demonstrates that community outreach can be accomplished in around four minutes, especially if you have a repetitious early ‘90s dance song. By the end of the film the Reverend Mother comes around and realizes the folly of her ways; all it took was the help of a sinful Reno singer, a near death experience, and a visit from the pope.
Now, as I said before, the first half of the film is quite lackluster but it really turns around when the choir begins singing old Motown and R&B songs. Their rendition of Salve Regina, complete with both a reverent and pop music portion, had me in tears. All the stereotypical conventions of mediocre popular music were on display, from various nuns singing certain sections like American Idol contestants to the hand clapping rhythm section, and played perfectly. There were moments where I could tell where the song was going and when it went there I couldn’t help laughing. Like I said a moment ago, I was in tears it was so ridiculous. Below is a clip.
I am curious about the irreverence of the film, taking popular religious songs and transforming them into banal pop. Personally I don’t care and its possible the declining number of Catholics has opened up the institution to popular conventions with their services (they’re probably one child molestation accusation away from saying abortion is questionable). Regardless, I’m just wondering if the pope would actually endorse a rapping nun’s choir.
I’m not sure if Whoopi becomes a nun by the end of the film, although the comically forged magazine covers featuring Deloris as a nun may prove otherwise; I think I’ll know the answer after I watch Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit later on this week. However, I do believe Sister Act is in the same category as Showgirls – a ‘90s film which is funny but not for the intended reasons. Sister Act is funny because it’s the opposite of comedy; it’s a film where a lighthearted approach to Catholicism becomes a parody of the faith and no amount of uplifting songs or Whoopi’s homespun brand of wisdom can prove otherwise. I’m actually surprised Keitel signed on for the film, especially since he’s been in a long line of quality films – Bad Lieutenant, Pulp Fiction, Taxi Driver – but his performance as the Catholic mobster from Reno is pretty one dimensional, relying on mobster stereotypes for its effectiveness. Whatever your reason for engaging Sister Act, I strongly urge not going in because you’re expecting a quality comedy; instead jump in feet first because you want to see a true cinematic abortion that grossed over $200 million worldwide and was the 8th largest grossing film of 1992.
Here’s the trailer