Original US release date: May 29, 1992
Production budget: $31,000,000
Worldwide gross: $231,605,150
Back in 1992, Whoopi Goldberg was a huge star. She garnered an Oscar nomination for Steven Spielberg’s 1985 film The Color Purple and then went out and actually won one as the Best Supporting Actress for 1990’s Ghost. Despite both of these films being heavy dramas, Goldberg was best known for her comedic prowess and Sister Act was her first opportunity to use that to her advantage in a high-profile feature film leading role. When Bette Midler stepped out as the film’s lead, Goldberg was cast and she and the film were a natural fit. After going on to gross more than seven times its production budget, Sister Act has remained a fixture in pop culture and has even been adapted into a stage musical.
Goldberg plays Deloris, a lounge singer from Reno, Nevada. Unbeknownst to Deloris, her boyfriend Vince (Harvey Keitel) is a mob boss and when Deloris accidentally witnesses Vince kill an informant, she runs to the police, who places her into a floundering convent in California as part of their witness protection program. Due to their rather disparate lifestyles, Deloris and the Mother Superior (Maggie Smith) clash, but in spite of the Mother Superior’s misgivings, Deloris finds her groove and introduces a new style of music to the church, which offers hope to their survival . . . if Deloris, herself, can survive long enough to see it through, that is.
Directed by Emile Ardolino (who, with Dirty Dancing already under his belt by this time, had experience combining film with music), Sister Act is a delightful fish-out-of-water comedy for the whole family. Though it takes a little time to get warmed up, once Deloris reaches the convent, the film is relentlessly entertaining. While not the funniest comedy ever put on the big screen, it has its moments of involuntary laughter. More than that, though, it’s perpetually amusing – likely to put a smile on your face and to keep it there until the final credits roll.
As the bubbly and joyful Sister Mary Patrick, it’s Kathy Najimi who steals every scene she’s in, commanding the viewer’s attention anytime she’s within the frame. Najimi gets the most and biggest laughs in the film not only by the simple nature of Mary Patrick’s irresistible urges to act against type, but by the endearing sincerity that Najimi injects into her performance. Najimi is a very talented comedienne and, though she’s worked consistently since this breakout performance, it’s a shame that she didn’t receive more high-profile roles than she did in the years that followed.
While, yes, the film is a comedy, and that and Goldberg were primarily the lures that got audiences into theaters, over 26 years ago, what kept them coming back in massive numbers was a combination of the unique hook, the music, and the film’s charm. I can’t begin to fathom how anyone who even has a slight love of music couldn’t enjoy this film. I’m not talking about people who say they love music but only listen to one or two genres because it supports the image of themselves they want to project to the world. I’m talking about authentic music lovers who gravitate towards anything genuine. The musical performances in the movie are palpable and will get anyone with even a kernel of happiness inside of them moving and singing along. Music is powerful and here we get to see it bring people together.
But it’s that aforementioned charm that really propelled the picture to unforeseen heights and longevity. At the heart of this film is a narrative about people with different backgrounds and different belief systems finding a way to see the others’ perspectives, reaching an amenable compromise, and not only coexisting, but learning to care about the other. And not in the phony “I love them but don’t agree with their lifestyle way”. That’s garbage. You can’t love someone if you don’t accept them. Sister Act is about acceptance of other people and not assuming that they are somehow less virtuous than you because they live and believe differently. That’s appealing to people, even on a subconscious level, and that’s why this film has endured for almost three decades.
There’s not much left to be said about Sister Act. Aside from espousing a feelgood message of unity that spoke to people of all different types, the film also sent another message – this one to Hollywood, itself. Here, 26 years ago, was a monumentally successful film that featured an African-American female as the lead. Yet, somehow, years later, Warner Brothers was still hesitant to do a Wonder Woman movie for fear of not attracting an audience. We all saw what happened when they finally went for it, didn’t we? And we all saw what happened with Marvel’s Black Panther, as well. So, though it took a while for that message to get across, Sister Act was a progressive film long before people were asking for progressive films. Like another recent #ThrowbackThursday film, it was also from a time when a film like this – without major special effects or an event film feel – could break out and be a huge success. If anyone thinks this exact same film could crack $140 million at the domestic box office in 2018, they’re kidding themselves. And that’s sad. But what isn’t sad is that this film is still out there to be enjoyed and isn’t ever going away. If you haven’t seen it, take the chance. You might just have a good time.
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