New Film ‘Shoplifters of the World’ is a Poignant Love Letter to The Smiths

There’s a scene in the veritably religious new film Shoplifters of the World (from RLJE Films, release date March 26) where the protagonists, a group of mid-’80s outcasts / iconoclasts / Smiths fans in Denver crash a party of normies – normal kids – and initiate a merciless evisceration of their genuinely unforgivable taste in music: Bon Jovi? Boston? Bryan Adams? Surely people have been executed for less. The year specifically is 1987, and the nigh-apocalyptic news has just made its way across the pond that Morrissey, Marr, Joyce and Rourke had indeed broken up the only band that ever really mattered…and a worldwide “requiem” has commenced in utter abjection and near hopelessness.

The scene is particularly amusing in its depiction of the pitiless sense of sneering condescension that the outliers were once granted via the music that soundtracked their lives – it was bullying back the bullies with cultural superiority. But the film is also haunted by a kind of inescapable, mournful nostalgia, as it piercingly reminds of the irreversible demise of the sort of weirdo tribalism that once so intensely bound together all those living just beyond the fringes of societal acceptance – a tribalism that has been replaced by the Instagramming of pancakes and the soulless obsession with 60-second TikTok videos about absolutely nothing.

Literally no band ever represented said tribalism so monumentally as did The Smiths. And amongst the time-transporting, archival black & white footage woven into the Shoplifters… narrative is a scene of a half-dozen or so young boys biking about, probably somewhere in Manchester (Salford?) around 1984, and all dressed identically in the unmistakable Morrissey regalia – right down to the pompadour and studious spectacles. Then flashbacks to vintage interviews with Marr (“We wanted to ditch everything that people superficially thought was rock & roll.”) and Morrissey (“Do you have any friends?” “No, I don’t” “So The Smiths are your only friends?” “As far as I can see, yeah.”) make for a spine-tingling recolection of what vividly and brilliantly self-drawn characters they were (especially the latter, obviously) – and serve to decisively explicate all the hysteria swirling around them, from the North of England all the way to the suburbs of Denver.

But the battle lines that were so clearly drawn back then were not readily crossed…and writer-director Stephen Kijak’s film so perfectly illustrates this when record shop clerk Dean’s boss enters to the sound of The Smiths’ ‘Oscillate Wildly’ wafting through the store, and the conversation transpires thusly:

“Hey, Nick Cave – what did we talk about? No depressing crap in the store.”

“The Smiths just broke up.”

“Oooh, maybe because they called their record The World Won’t Listen.”

But victory yet belongs to Dean (Ellar Coltrane), as he keeps his philistine employer distracted long enough to allow pal/crush Cleo (Helena Howard) to carry out a spectacular run of petty cassette thievery (ah, discontented youth). He then tries to impress her by revealing, “I was going to make you a tape of this new band from Manchester, Happy Mondays.” To which she rebuffs him with extreme prejudice, “Happy? I hate them already.”

The plot is set in motion by her dejectedly lamenting, “Our music died today. I wish there was a way to get all the posers in this town to take notice.”

Dean then decides to take that as a challenge, and heads to a local radio station, where Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello, terrific) hosts an all night metal show. The former pulls a gun on the latter, and forces him to play nothing but Smiths songs – shooting up a Kiss coffee mug to prove he’s serious. (Smiths fans will appreciate the symbolism, considering that band’s macho idiocy was everything Morrissey once stood athwart.)

The film is split into a pair of interconnected stories, with Cleo and her band of outsiders spending the night trying to dance and drink away the pain of the loss of their musical lifeline. But what unfolds at the station says so much more about the incredible power of music than an overly sentimental film like Almost Famous could ever hope to. Dean poignantly explains to his “hostage” his ascension to the ranks of Smiths fans:

“My life sucked. No one knew me, and yet everyone gave me shit – even the nerds, and the girl I thought I liked. So I found a razor blade. I’ll never forget, though, my first day back at work (he picks up the Smiths album Hatful of Hollow), we got this new import in. I’d never heard of them before. I just listened to it over and over again, it was like nothing I’d never heard: martyrdom and meaningless death, guilt and heroism, sex and celibacy, catharsis and deceit – all the horrors you have to face up to. I owe them everything. They saved my life.”

But a seemingly jaded Mickey warns him, “You know dude, one day your heroes are going to grow old. They’re going to change, they’re going to put out shitty music. They’re going to say stupid things, and betray the past.”

And sure enough, as he puts the needle down on ‘Meat is Murder,’ there is a flashback to Morrissey: “We feel that popular music should be used to make serious statements. Because so many groups sell masses and masses of records, and don’t raise people’s levels of consciousness. And we find that quite sinful, especially in these serious times.”

These days, of course, Moz is a card-carrying supporter of the right-wing For Britain party. Saying stupid things, and betraying the past.

But the past here, like all pasts, is also fraught. And Cleo actually manages to rattle off the definitive take on how all those ’80s John Hughes movies never did really and truly capture the full measure of the pain of being young and not fitting in.

“I fucking hate Molly Ringwald. In Pretty In Pink, she’s so worried about being liked by this preppy asshole. She’s got a cool job and awesome clothes, and it’s some big deal for someone normal to like her. Her cool best friend is in love with her, and she’s kind of a bitch about it. Is that supposed to be our lives?”

Is it indeed?

Ultimately, the film could be taken as a love letter to that aforementioned sense of tribalism and visceral camaraderie, which was eventually replaced by the worship of technology, and the even greater worship of the self over the tribe. After all, youth are now more in thrall to their devices than they are to the music that they play on them – which is like ordering good food, and eating the plate instead. But as we hear Morrissey trilling those famous words, “The rain falls hard on a humdrum town / This town has dragged you down,” we’re also affectionately reminded that however brief their moment, The Smiths made so many people feel heroic enough to escape their circumstances. And that is the greatest gift that music could possibly bestow.

These were indeed the songs that saved your life – and Shoplifters of the World rightly and properly celebrates them.

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