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MMYIF: Sister Act

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Sister Act
Directed by: Emile Ardolina
Starring: Whoopi Goldberg, Maggie Smith, Kathy Najimy
Released: May 29, 1992

When a nightclub singer is forced to take refuge from the mob in a convent, she ends up turning the convent choir into a soulful chorus complete with a Motown repertoire, until the sudden celebrity of the choir jeopardizes her identity.

What I Thought Then

Not only did we love this movie, we listened to the soundtrack a lot. I loved the music and had some very confusing feelings about Sister Mary Robert.

What I Think Now

Whoopi Goldberg is Deloris Van Cartier, a lounge singer who walks in on her mobster boyfriend bloodlessly murdering someone. She runs to the cops and is placed in witness protection, hiding in a small, struggling convent. While there, she does some unfunny fish-out-of-water comedy and locks horns with Maggie Smith's Mother Superior before settling in as choir-mistress. In this role, she reinvents their music program with some Motown sensibilities and ends up revitalizing the parish. This gets a lot of attention and her mobster boyfriend finds her. Hijinks ensue.

It's kind of impressive how many story beats this film shares with Kindergarten Cop, when you think about it.

Story-wise, it's kind of a mess, evidence of a script that was re-written hastily and often. Deloris went to Catholic school but seems completely ignorant of Catholicism. The first thing she says when she arrives at the convent is to complain that nuns don't even have sex, but then later when she finds out about the vow of chastity, she nopes right out again as though it were fresh news. There's a subplot about the sisters going out into the community to meet their neighbors that results in a montage and then goes nowhere. Deloris is discovered at first by a surprise news crew, due to the success of the choir, but then it turns out she's not, but then she's actually discovered by a mole in the police department. Granted, this is all plot business, so it's not that important that the various threads are redundant or run out of steam. But even Deloris's character arc is soft and squishy and only loosely woven into the narrative.

Something else I noticed on this rewatch is that it doesn't get to the music for a while. She doesn't join the choir until forty-five minutes into a 100-minute movie. This is kind of a shame, because the music is the best thing going for it hands-down full-stop no-qualifiers. It's super cheesy but you can't help enjoying yourself while the choir is singing. They're having a ball, and therefore so you are. Especially for someone like me who grew up singing in choirs (not nun choirs, but choirs nonetheless). This movie really captures of the feel of being up there singing in front of people and the joy of it all coming together. The second-best thing in the movie is Deloris's blossoming friendship with some of the nuns, especially her rapport with the mousy Sister Mary Robert and the boisterous Sister Mary Patrick, who are so inseparable that I half expected them to fuse together T-1000-style into a single entity: Sister Robert Patrick.

And I just want you to know how hard I worked to make that joke happen.

At the end of the day... it's fine. It's a family film. The jokes are cheesy and obvious, the villains are cartoony, and premise is ridiculous. It would be imminently forgettable if the performances weren't so damned good. On top of the music, and Goldberg's huge on-screen charisma, there are some fantastic beats from more prominent nuns, notably Kathy Najimy's bubbly Mary Patrick and Mary Wickes as the grizzled old Sister Mary Lazarus, who's seen some shit. There was also a throwaway background gag that I was tickled by. At the beginning of the film, the name of Goldberg's singing group is "The Ronelles", but when they return to the casino for the finale, the group appears to have reformed as "The Leerons."

In terms of things that haven't aged well, there's nothing much to gripe about. For a movie that takes place in San Francisco, it's oddly heteronormative, except you don't really notice since it's an aggressively asexual movie, acknowledging the existence of sex only so far as it's something to make vague jokes about. As far as race goes, Harvey Keitel and his stooges are comic Italian stereotypes, but it's noteworthy that at no point does anyone ever explicitly comment on Goldberg's blackness.

Recommendation?

Not particularly. It's pure nostalgia. But it's not, like, bad nostalgia by any stretch.

Tune in next week to quack at Mr. Ducksworth...

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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