How did ‘Sister Act 2’ become a classic musical?
An under-the-radar sequel is now a mainstay of black culture
Let’s start with what you probably already know: Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, the 1993 sequel to the blockbuster Sister Act, featured Whoopi Goldberg at the height of her charismatic leading lady powers, a future megastar in Lauryn Hill and a half-dozen unforgettable musical moments that have become lore in black communities across the country.
The story revolves around Goldberg revisiting her Sister Mary Clarence character, this time to train up a class of talented yet rebellious inner-city high schoolers and culminating in moments that are oft-quoted, cited and extemporaneously reenacted in any given gathering of black folks. Two-and-a-half decades after the movie’s release, the cultural impact of Sister Act 2 is felt across movies, music and even your Sunday church services. But, again, you already know that.
Here’s what you don’t remember about Sister Act 2: By every metric the movie was an abject failure. The movie only grossed about $57 million, a far cry from the box office phenomenon of the original, which grossed more than $230 million. The magic touch Goldberg brought to the first movie, and most of the movies in which she starred in the early ’90s, didn’t extend to the sequel. Beyond that, the movie was widely panned by critics, with a 7% score on Rotten Tomatoes. Variety said the movie was “suffering a bad case of sequelitis.” The Washington Post said “If there’s anything good to be said for Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit, it’s that this shoddiest of sequels should be the last act for these sorry Sisters.” Entertainment Weekly called it “pretty much a mess.”
So how does a movie that underperforms at the box office, gets obliterated by critics and essentially falls out of public consciousness after its short theater run become a cult classic?
It starts with the nature of the reviews themselves and who was writing them. Sister Act 2 was a thematic shift from the first movie, which focused on Goldberg and a group of older white nuns. The sequel was set in the San Francisco inner city and focuses on urban kids trying to get their lives in order. The reviewers didn’t reflect those communities.
“The reviewers at that time could not really be linked to our communities or the message,” said Bill Duke, who directed Sister Act 2. “As you know, the faces of the reviewers were very different than the viewers. So I was surprised, but not shocked, because they didn’t get us at the time. They didn’t get the message and did not relate on an emotional level.”
This was, of course, before social media, when it was harder for word of mouth to overcome the opinions in mainstream publications. So the film languished in theaters and seemed to disappear.
Then two things happened to change the destiny of Sister Act 2: First, the movie started to resurface in syndication, getting noticed by fans who missed it the first time around. Second, Hill went from an unknown in the movie to a household name. She was the lead voice in the rap trio Fugees, whose debut 1996 album The Score went six-times platinum and featured the chart-topping single “Killing Me Softly,” which won the Grammy for best R&B performance by a duo or group. Of course, Hill followed that up with her solo album, 1998’s Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill, which won five Grammys, including album of the year.
Of the more than a dozen people I spoke to for this article, they all had two things in common: They saw the movie, but not in theaters, and they remember seeing it after Hill was a known commodity. In fact, most people I talked to remember the movie as having come out after The Score, three years after the movie hit theaters.
No matter when fans actually came across Sister Act 2, one thing remains true, even for audiences in 2019: The movie is a classic and much of the love revolves around the music. Sister Act 2 presented a blend of gospel with the burgeoning hip-hop genre, as well as contemporary rhythm and blues. Early in the film, while Sister Mary Clarence is trying to get the students to follow her lead and embrace gospel music, the kids freestyle rap in playgrounds and sing taunts at their reluctant teacher. Part of the journey is Mary Clarence realizing that she has to loosen up the stuffy gospel music she was raised with and integrate more youthful, secular music to get the children to wholly participate. When the two worlds meet, we get a story of intergenerational understanding and some pretty incredible music.
Unbeknownst to anyone making the movie at the time, the movie would help usher in a new era of gospel music that made it more accessible to a wider audience by inserting hip-hop and R&B. The movie helped influence the musicians of today who blend their church songs with radio hits.
“I remember feeling like if this is how gospel music sounded, I could get behind it,” said Christian hip-hop artist Lecrae. “The movie influenced my career and showed me that our music can touch people if we meet them where they are.”
The mastermind behind the musical mix was Mervyn Warren, a young composer and musical arranger who was a member of the Grammy-winning vocal group Take 6. Warren also produced most of the 1992 album Handel’s Messiah: A Soulful Celebration, an album that reinterpreted the 1741 oratorio by George Frideric Handel using contemporary R&B and jazz. His ability to mix genres gained the attention of Disney execs who brought him on to Sister Act 2, where he worked pure magic.
The two musical numbers that Warren put together, “Oh, Happy Day” and the grand finale, “Joyful, Joyful,” would become the defining moments of Sister Act 2. The songs had a distinct R&B flavor, with the latter incorporating rap and even interpretations of Naughty By Nature and Janet Jackson.
“That’s probably the first time that mix of gospel and other genres had happened in a movie,” said Warren. “I had sort of grown up doing that kind of thing. But these were things that we did locally. They weren’t songs that were necessarily released to the world.”
Lecrae agrees: “It was happening in smaller churches and the music was more acceptable. But the movie, I think, inspired leaders in the church to take on what they saw in the movie.”
As brilliant as Warren’s compositions were, they wouldn’t have worked without casting exceptionally talented kids who would go on to make their marks as musicians in their own right. One such musician was Ryan Toby who was a 15-year-old prodigy when he auditioned for the role of Ahmal. It’s his solo during “Oh, Happy Day” that becomes the turning point for the movie and it’s made possible by a now-legendary high note that shook viewers and even his co-stars.
“They wanted me to take it to church with that solo,” he said. “They told me to take some risks and some ad-libs and I was doing some cool stuff. But then Marvin was like ‘Yo, you should sing one those Mariah Carey notes that you do.’ ”
“It was clear from the beginning that Ryan was one of the outstanding singers,” Warren said. “And at some point we were made aware that he could sing these high notes. We had to find somewhere in the movie for him to do that. So it was planned, and I created the arrangement knowing that we were going to have him do that.”
The moment will give you goose bumps. A nervous Ahmal, hesitant to express himself, finally comes out of his shell and owns the scene. Toby would go on to be one-third of the group City High and make a top-10 hit, 1999’s “What Would You Do?” He’s written songs for the likes of Usher and Justin Bieber and still performs. But it’s his high note from 1993 that he’s best known for.
“People recognize me from Sister Act first before anything, every time without a doubt,” Toby said with a laugh. “Like, Sister Act is embedded in people’s memories and nostalgia and their childhood. That’s the part that blows my mind every day.”
As beloved as Toby’s solo is, it’s the climactic set piece, “Joyful, Joyful,” that catapulted the movie to legendary status. And we can’t talk about that song, or any more of Sister Act 2 without talking about the star turn of one Lauryn Hill.
The singer/rapper was honing her skill as an MC and working toward that debut with The Fugees when she auditioned for her part. It became obvious early on that she was a generational talent in the making.
“It’s my job to bring the best out of our performers,” Duke said. “But I can’t bring something out of someone that isn’t there. So she had to have that star in her from the beginning.”
Hill played a conflicted talent, torn between her mother’s wishes and her ambition. She brought an emotional depth to the role that showed potential for a full acting career. But it was her ownership of the musical numbers that defined her contribution to the movie. Take for instance her intro solo for “Joyful, Joyful.”
“Those are Lauryn’s notes,” said singer Syleena Johnson, who, coincidentally sang the hook to Kanye West’s 2003 single “All Falls Down” to replace what was previously planned as a Lauryn Hill vocal sample. “When we sing those notes for ‘Joyful, Joyful,’ we’re singing it like that because of the way she sang it. We still sing it like that to this day.”
Johnson said the same is true for a short scene earlier in the movie when Hill sang “His Eye Is on the Sparrow.” “Absolutely, those are her notes, too.”
“I feel like she was me,” said gospel singer Latice Crawford. “She was this dark-skinned girl with braids and all this talent. I remember going to church after seeing her and asking if we could sing like she did.”
After Hill’s “Joyful, Joyful” solo ends, the rest of the choir joins in, all wearing street clothes, turning flips on the stage and looking more like rappers than the traditional choirs that performed before them in the fictional competition. There are record-scratches, hip-hop breaks, Goldberg with a two-step, a change in the lyrics from “you down with O.P.P.” to “you down with G.O.D.” They change the lyrics to Jackson’s “what have you done for me lately” to “what have you done for him lately?” The final moment of the crew winning the choir competition is unforgettable.
“At the end to see that standing ovation and it’s emotional to watch,” Crawford recalled. “For me, the message was that if you just be yourself and package it yourself, you’ll find God where you are. I may not look like everybody else or sound like everybody, but I’m who God created me to be. And they won!”
In November, West released his gospel fusion album Jesus Is King, which has topped gospel and overall charts. His mix of gospel, R&B and hip-hop is a continuation of the movement that took off in the ’90s. The emergence of artists such as Lecrae, Chance The Rapper and others who have found a balance between the secular and the holy can be traced back to a cultural moment that Sister Act 2 was a central part of, along with the music of acts like Kirk Franklin, whose 1997 “Stomp” became a musical phenomenon.
“You’ve had hip-hop artists who preached the gospel before Sister Act,” Johnson said. “Gospel has always been a part of black pop culture before. It’s all intertwined anyway. Sister Act 2 was part of the movement to bring all of that mainstream.”
So, again, how does a poorly-reviewed box office bomb change the face of music and black pop culture? Lecrae has a hypothesis: “The merging of gospel and contemporary culture was done authentically and done well. People got to see that merger happen in a way that you’re rooting for it and all of the kids to succeed. The music met them where they were, and met us where we were when we saw it. It changed lives. It changed my life.”