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Soundtracking: "Sister Act"

It's the 25th anniversary of Sister Act! Here's Chris Feil with the second installment of Soundtracking, our newest series at The Film Experience, focusing on music in the movies...

Nuns having fun while singing runs! Alma, check your battery, because it’s time to take it to church!

Sister Act is about as much of an easy comfort as 90s movies get, from Whoopi Goldberg’s peak comic powers to that vibrant choral soundtrack. The film is kind of a prototype jukebox musical, recontextualizing 60s girl group soul to a vaguely christian context. “Guy” becomes “God”, traditional hymns transition into contemporary gospel, music and lyrics twisted twenty years before Pitch Perfect and Glee popularized the mash-up.

Similarly, the film itself is somewhere in a middleground of bouyant pop sensibility and religious sentiment unburdened by messy reality. A cynic might say that Delores’s reshaping of spiritual music reflects how some religious types twist religion to support their own agenda, but Sister Act’s worldview is about cohabitation. Can you imagine a film today as uninterested with supporting either affiliation but asserting our abilities to beneficially exist together? And doing so through song, no less? (And making crazy money at the box office like how Sister Act spent an entire summer in the Top 10? I could go on and on...)

The joining of the two musical styles is crucial in displaying that passive relationship. The opening lounge medley that forecasts some of the hits to come is disjointed and dispassionate. There’s nothing of the ebullient connection we feel to the music later on, and the same goes for Whoopi’s Dolores. Her eagerness to ultimately get the damn show over with shows she’s come a long way from calling Beatles her own apostles as a young girl. It’s as if it takes Dolores working among God worshippers to rediscover that music is her deity, even if she herself isn’t a convert to theirs.


Not that the nuns don’t need her worldliness just as much. Isn’t the sound of Kathy Najimy’s bone-rattling upper register wailing just burned into your brain, if that one baritone nun doesn’t barge in early before her cue again? The nuns are far more eager to learn that Dolores, even with Reverend Mother’s strictness, and find their faith even more actualized due to Dolores’s new ideas.

They are more convincing because they are more convicted, a more unified group for the message.

Dolores’s education moves in steps from modernizing the sound with “Oh Maria”, to the lyrical tweak to “My God”, to full on unaltered soul classic “I Will Follow Him”. With this final number you can take as much spiritual meaning as you wish or not at all, but the chorus uplifts all the same. Their liberating expression of devoted faith is also Delores’s reemergence into her own passion - oh and hey she remains the star of the show she always wanted to be. Sister Mary Robert’s vocals do give her a run for her money (trivia nerds - Wendy Makkena had a voice double!).

Everybody wins (especially the audience’s ears) and no one is forced to sacrifice their identity. It’s an interesting message against the recent rise of faith films and mainstream cinema’s avoidance of religion all together. Though Sister Act is essentially areligious, the most inoffensive possible package no matter your spiritual affiliation, it does show both sides with something to gain from the other.

BONUS TRACK: Fellow VHS generation folks will remember that post-credits original track “If My Sister’s In Trouble” by Lady Soul also adds to that sense of unity. “Sister” obviously being a nod towards the Sister Mary [blank]s, but it’s pure 90s soul fabulousness. Sequin gowns, leather gloves, nun choreo - your modern day original songs could never. "I Will Follow Him" may be a untoppably joyful finale, but this makes for a perfect coda.

Previously on Soundtracking...
American Honey

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Reader Comments (13)

I love "Sister Act" and it has a special place in my heart. My family rarely went out to see a movie in the theaters. "Sister Act" was one of the few we saw together, and my dad, who was more into B-action films starring Charles Bronson than he was into comedies, was laughing so loudly. I never heard him laugh as loud as he did watching "Sister Act."

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterRaul

Just the pick-me-up I needed - thanks, Chris. And you are sadly right it's hard to imagine this movie either being made today or being such an across-the-board hit. I miss the '90s!

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterlylee

Always enjoyed the movie. I have wondered how the film would have been if the original choice for the lead role, Bette Midler, had accepted.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterReady

"Just a touch of love, just a touch of love..." Such a great soundtrack.

And Whoopi's looks at her co-workers in that opening medley are priceless.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

As a Catholic, I remember seeing this in theaters as a 12 year-old thinking that it was cool to see my church up on the screen. Subsequent viewings in years past made me appreciate a little more that the movie doesn't preach Catholicism nor make fun of it. Something's that a bit of a rarity and something that I still very much appreciate.

As far as the music goes, as a 12 year-old raised on 1960s music, I remember thinking it was so cool that they changed up those songs to carry a slightly religious bent and kept wondering why in the world my church wouldn't adopt them to sing in church every week.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJHR

I wonder if Bette Midler could've gotten another nod for this, had she accepted.

Either way, love that Whoopi got it, and it's a great representation of her peak years in Hollywood.

May 31, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip H.

I love love looove this movie! It´s a perfect example that it doesnt need big effects or flat jokes to be a big hit. You need a nice storyline and great charakters to go all the way and a Whhopi at her peak of her career. Sadly we dont see her in big movies anymore. I miss the old Whoopi.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterPatrick

this, and its sequel, while not great filmmaking, are too lovable, and with amazing soundtracks and engaging performances from the main cast. Their main problem: being too formulaic.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJesus Alonso

Coincidentally, I start rehearsals for a local production of the stage adaptation tonight.

How did I not know that Bette Midler was the intended lead for the movie? Though that bit of casting would have made perfect sense, I think that a large part of what made Sister Act work was how inspired the left-field choice of Whoopi happened to be. This film could not be made today, primarily because it would come off like a propaganda piece for the Catholic church, especially in light of stories like Spotlight and The Keepers.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Little 12-year-old me so, so loved this film when it came out. I was already a big Whoopi fan but when the choir kicks into the upbeat version of "Hail Holy Queen," I got chills. It's just a big, fun, silly movie that, to echo others, neither promotes nor makes fun of Catholicism.

It might be hard to remember what a huge hit this was at the time. It debuted with under $12 million and still went on to gross almost $140 million. You have to have insane holdover week to week and, looking at boxofficemojo, this movie did: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?page=weekend&id=sisteract.htm

As much as I love Midler, this would've been a very different movie with her in it. Maybe it could've worked, tailoring the movie to its star, but also maybe not.

June 1, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterDJDeeJay

Love this movie. It would not be made in 2017 but they should bring it back to some midnight screenings.

June 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKJ

TBH, I love Bette and I see why they wanted her, but I feel like she would've mugged her performance in this so much that the joy of it would've gone. Whoopi was perfect and I love this movie. Even the ridiculously bad sequel is eminently rewatchable. I've never been able to figure out why they cast Wendy Makkena given they dubbed her voice. She's not famous. Why not just cast somebody who could actually sing the part?

June 2, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

>trivia nerds - Wendy Makkena had a voice double!<

Gee, really? Sorry, but that has always been painfully obvious, not too mention incredibly distracting.

June 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKirby

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