This week marks, inconceivably, the 25th anniversary of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, a film which still feels so fresh it may as well have been made yesterday – a work of art whose ambition and execution redefined what sequels could do. How did such a film come to be? Join me as we celebrate its existence, with a never more necessary deep-dive into its origins, making and legacy.
To consider the genesis of Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit you need to go on a journey back to the 1990s. In 1993, the hottest name in Hollywood was Whoopi Goldberg. Sister Act 1 had made bank at the box office, and a sequel was duly churned out, barely malking back its investment. The reasons for its comparative failure are surely due to the risks the film was willing to take.
Sister Act had been stewarded onto the screen by the pretty steady hands of Emile Ardolino, the director of Dirty Dancing, while Sister Act 2 was handed to Bill Duke, a talented filmmaker whose directing career it seems to have nail-gunned. Sister Act’s comedy came from a woman in witness protection misbehaving in a nunnery; in Sister Act 2, Whoopi once again dons her wimple but mostly just behaves, concentrated – as she is – on helping some local kids win a music contest.
About that plot: there are surely few films whose storylines have been rendered so redundant by subsequent events as Sister Act 2. Back in 1993, it would already have been a pretty safe bet that the singer played by Whoopi Goldberg, having unearthed singing talent in nuns in the first Sister Act, would discover some musical aptitude in her pupils in Sister Act 2. But now, looking at a classroom whose students include Lauryn Hill, the question of whether these underdog kids will make it in the end is so dead in the water from the outset that it raises the film to the status of a zen masterpiece. Watching it now takes you into another realm entirely, one wholly divorced from logic or reality. Will these rebellious students turn out to be any good at singing, the film asks you in the beginning, while framing a close-up on the famously brilliant singer of "Killing Me Softly". Will Whoopi’s students win the contest, it then cutely asks, as a series of kids from other schools compete against the woman who released one of the best albums of the decade.
The film's pleasures, then, which are many, have mostly to do with musical excellence wholly out of whack with the film’s modest capabilities. The film has, adorably, not the faintest idea what to do with the talent it has, which is most visible in a badly staged scene where Hill duets on "His Eye Is On the Sparrow" with Tanya Blount. In the film, the characters are supposed to be sharing a private, intimate moment, which is interrupted when they are overheard by a passing nun – but, because Sister Act 2 is so ham-fisted, the interruption comes about 40 seconds into the song, meaning viewers miss out on a potential three more minutes of extraordinarily soaring gospel vocalising.
Why not interrupt them when the song is nearly finished? In the late stages, the kids (spoiler alert) win the singing contest with a rendition of "Joyful, Joyful" that is tacky, obviously written by a clueless grown-up in a nice apartment, and arranged with the worst, cheapest R’n’B fripperies that the time could offer. The second the Casio-style beat kicks in after Hill’s stunning a cappella introduction is surely one of the most tragic moments in cinema.
The one performance that unequivocally pops is Ryan Toby taking everybody to church on "Oh Happy Day", in a scene that mercifully stages the performance with no added nonsense, and where the singing takes centre stage. Bill Duke is savvy enough to chuck in a Whoopi reaction shot and a Maggie Smith reaction shot in quick succession, the two Oscar winners delivering the goods here. Incidentally, my favourite piece of Sister Act 2-related trivia is that Toby would go on to co-write "Miami" for Will Smith. (The best piece of trivia related to the franchise is that Bette Midler was originally supposed to play the main role but backed out, fearing that "her audience wouldn’t want to see her play a nun".)
Sister Act 2 is also important for the vital claim it stakes on a sorely underrated genre: the "getting the kids to listen" film, which had something of a heyday in the 90s – that era, of course, being a time when anything the "youth" did, from listening to rap music to taking ecstasy, via having sex in the middle of an AIDS epidemic, seemingly petrified anyone over the age of 30, as satirised in the film Pleasantville (1998). As a result of this generational panic, the decade witnessed a sub-trend of teachers getting the darned teens to get an education – in films like Dangerous Minds (1995), in which Michelle Pfeiffer hilariously gets her miscreant students interested in… Bob Dylan!
Sister Act 2 gamely goes along with this nonsense, featuring scenes where Whoopi gets in on the then-trend for "yo mama" jokes, astonishing her young charges with her feisty smarts. (Every young actor in the film, being a fully trained singer, has about as much street cred as the Hot Cops in Arrested Development.)
Whoopi Goldberg has gone on record as saying that she expects there to be a follow-up to the film. We pray for a cameo from L-Boogie. Joyful joyful, Lord, we adore thee.