Dance ‘Til Dawn

Originally posted in 2010 at Forces of Geek

Dance ‘Til Dawn is a 1988 NBC made-for-television movie featuring a slew of familiar TV faces, all slotted into a simple tale of wish fulfillment on the night of the high school prom. Yes, it’s a prom movie. An eighties prom movie, no less. This generates certain expectations.

Consult your prom-movie checklist: Snobby popular girl gets her comeuppance? Check. Underdog gets elected prom queen? Check. Unlikely couplings? Check. Riotous after-party? Check.

It’s the day of the prom, and there’s trouble in paradise. Skeevy graduating senior Kevin (Brian Bloom, sporting a decade-appropriate coif: feathered in front, gelled on the sides, mullet in back) breaks up with pretty Shelley (Alyssa Milano), his girlfriend of four years, over her reluctance to put out. Kevin, who wants to be assured of scoring on his big night, asks geeky, bespectacled Angela (Tracey Gold) to the dance instead, after catching wind of an improbable rumor that she’s “got a mattress tied around her back.” This is optimistic of Kevin, as good-girl Angela is firmly under the thumb of her strict, ultra-religious parents (Kelsey Grammer and Edie McClurg).

Not one to spend much time dwelling in the middle ground, Angela is torn between two post-graduation paths—attending Bible college or jetting off to art school in Italy—and thus doesn’t have much use for romance. She’s skeptical of Kevin’s motives, but agrees to accompany him to the dance at the urging of her best friend, aspiring fashion designer Margaret (Tempestt Bledsoe).

Meanwhile, snippy Patrice (Christina Applegate) and her hapless boyfriend Roger (Matthew Perry) are caught in a whirlwind of prom preparations. Patrice, who has her sights set on being elected prom queen, zealously micromanages every aspect of the big night, from making sure the decorations coordinate with her dress to planning the ultimate après-prom party at her house. If Dance ‘Til Dawn has a villain (note: Dance ‘Til Dawn does not have a villain), it’s Patrice, with poor glassy-eyed Roger, who seems more like a brainwashed hostage than a devoted swain, as her long-suffering stooge.

Lonely misfit Dan (Max Headroom’s Chris Young, the decade’s go-to actor for hunky teen-geek roles) can’t find a prom date, due to his low social status (as Patrice notes, “Did you see his polo shirt? It didn’t even have a polo guy on it!”). Unwilling to disappoint Jack (Alan Thicke), his swinging-single dad, Dan buys a corsage and maintains an elaborate charade of having a girlfriend. Jack, who has a Corvette, a swanky bachelor pad, and a brisk social life, sends his son off to the dance with these ominous parting words: “I don’t want to see you back here until dawn, young man.”

Desperate to keep her friends and family from discovering she’s dateless on prom night, Shelley dons a poofy gown and rents a limousine, then holes up in a movie theater watching an all-night creature feature. There, she encounters a tuxedo-clad Dan, who is similarly killing time until morning. After Dan shields Shelley from an unruly band of tenth graders, these two adorable kids decide to hang out together until dawn.

Angela, with Margaret’s assistance, dons a slinky, backless black dress that she found in the back of her mom’s closet, sweeps up her hair, slaps on a little makeup, ditches her glasses, and transforms into a knockout. Kevin whisks her off to a fairytale evening, starting with dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant, where they sip mineral water out of champagne flutes and split a portion of zabaglione served in a balloon goblet. Angela has a fantastic time, blissfully unaware of: a) Kevin’s unchivalrous intentions, and b) her overprotective parents trailing her at a safe distance.

Prom itself is an expected spectacle, with boys in tuxedos and big-haired girls in bright satin dresses bopping around to bad music. With the exception of “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” which became de rigueur on any school dance playlist in the wake of Top Gun, the Dance ‘Til Dawn soundtrack is studded with songs that sound vaguely like other, more memorable tunes; when your most recognizable Eighties tune is Michael Sembello’s “Rock Until You Drop,” it might be time to funnel more cash into the music-rights budget. On more than one occasion, Patrice’s washed-up musician father Larry (Cliff De Young), chaperoning the dance with his wife Nancy (Mary Frann), grouses about the god-awful racket blanketing the dance floor; I’m a huge fan of much of the synth-heavy, overly-processed music of this time period, and even I have to concede his point.

While killing time until morning, astronomy buff Dan takes Shelley up into the hills to look at the night sky. He has to explain the concept of constellations to his fellow graduating senior, which makes me shed a bitter tear for the state of our public schools. They eventually find their way to Mount Never-Rest (heh), the town’s big makeout spot, where Shelley finally realizes Dan’s glasses are the only thing standing in the way of his good looks. The glasses are whisked off, and passion blooms.

All plotlines hurtle toward their expected conclusions: Angela is crowned prom queen. Shelley and Dan hook up. Kevin gets handsy with Angela, so she dumps him. Angela’s parents realize their little girl is growing up. Patrice and Roger suffer a series of indignities and end up stranded on the wrong side of town, with Patrice clutching a sad bouquet of balloons as a memento of her terrible evening.

Teen-centered movies, like sitcoms focusing around teen characters, tend to draw more inspiration from each other than from relevant source material, i.e. living, breathing teenagers. Thus, we end up with the strange insular world of Dance ‘Til Dawn, which triggers nostalgia for the films and television shows of a bygone era, yet bears only the vaguest resemblance to a real-life prom. It’s as though the concept of a high school prom was described to someone who’d never experienced one, who then described it to someone else, who then described it to yet another person, with the details growing more and more garbled with each repetition, until someone finally scribbled it all down, cast a bunch of attractive actors, and turned it into a movie. The broad strokes are there—the fancy dresses, the corsages, the election of prom royalty—and yet it’s far abstracted from reality, a crude simulacrum of a typical prom experience.

This is not to imply the film isn’t charming—it is. It’s breezy and bright and well-meaning. There’s a genuine pleasure in watching these fresh-faced young stars, dressed in their finest outfits, playing slight variations on their best-known characters: Patrice might wrinkle her pert nose at comparisons to Kelly Bundy, but the differences between Shelley and Samantha Micelli, or between Angela and Carol Seaver, are not vast.

Dance ‘Til Dawn is a carnation-studded corsage of a film, as cheerful and ridiculous and inessential as Patrice’s voluminous, bow-covered, puce-colored, polka-dotted satin gown. None of it makes a lick of sense (Kevin was content to stick it out in a sexless relationship for four years before dumping Shelley on the day of the prom just for some guaranteed action? Both Angela and Dan voluntarily wear glasses without really needing them?), but all that’s beside the point. It’s a prom film. An Eighties prom film. As such, it has a single mission: to entertain. Mission accomplished.


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