The culture wars rage on, a tail-eating battle of moral superiority for an era that cannot see further than the end of the timeline. And nobody is more cancelled than Morrissey. The Smiths’ former frontman is surely a progenitor of the whole cancel business, not just by having a fanbase turn on him, but by taking it so badly. Every time Morrissey makes another comment about England being for the English, or storms off stage because the audience isn’t vegan enough, or publishes an awful autobiography, his status as a cultural bellwether and rock icon slips away a little further. It’s better, one would think, to be an oldster nice guy like Dave Grohl, and let yourself get trotted out every year or so by Rolling Stone and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon to remind folks of rock music’s platonic ideal: white, right and taking it easy. For “white is right” Morrissey, nothing is easy. Perhaps Shoplifters of the World, from Stephen Kijak, occasional director of moving music documentaries (Scott Walker: 30 Century Man, Stones in Exile), is an attempt to clean up The Smiths’ legacy.
Shoplifters of the World begins as all movies should: with a car, rock music and a dude taking a large pipe rip. That dude is Dean, played by Boyhood grower Ellar Coltrane, who, in Richard Linklater’s 2014 movie, becomes less appealing with every lurch forward in time as Ethan Hawke teaches him about country rock and The Beatles. Coltrane must have internalised that school of rock: Dean is a superfan of The Smiths who works at a record store where the boss (Tom Lennon) wants to push hair metal, but clearly a Smiths coup has been enabled: the place is positively draped in Smiths merch. In Denver, Colorado, Regan’s suburbia is full of the same houses, high schools and college parties. The culture of 1987, in this ready-made “film maudit,” extends as far as one band.
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Cleo is another superfan. Helena Howard, the sharp and responsive lead in Madeline’s Madeline, gives a ghastly performance that is probably undone from the fatal mistake of taking this Manic Pixie Dream Girl role, a reminder of a trope that peaked at the tail end of the 2000 and still lingers in modern cinema. Not only does Cleo charm her local liquor store owner into giving her a free bottle of whiskey, she sneaks a few bar bottles too. As a Smiths bootleg plays on Cleo’s car stereo, Kijak cuts to several stickers of the band on her car. Its number plate is, of course, MEATISMURDER. Chapter titles are named for Smiths songs (and they’re sides, not chapters, natch) while bedroom walls, too, are covered in posters and cutouts of the band. Within 10 minutes, the inertia is suffocating. There are no other bands, no context for the era beyond an odd reference to Act Up. This presents a warped simulacrum of the 1980s, closer to the Black Mirror episode “San Junipero” or Ready Player One, but the technological override to the pleasure principle is nowhere to be seen in this sincere trip. Cleo is caught off her guard when she sees a news report announcing The Smiths’ split: “Strangeways, there they go.”
“I wish there was a way to make all the posers in this town take notice,” Cleo says, inspiring Dean to hold up the local radio station. While the hulking Full Metal Mickey (a game Joe Manganiello) laughs at the unveiling of a Smiths compilation, Dean shoots a Gene Simmons mug to prove his point. He needn’t have bothered. I remember Zane Lowe playing The Queen Is Dead in full on Radio 1, a moment that truly buried millennial stragglers with the truth that it is all over.
Cleo meets up with her friends: Billy (Nick Krause), a punk in a Meat Is Murder shirt, closeted New Wave fan Patrick (James Bloor) and his beard Sheila (Elena Kampouris), who dresses like the obscure alternative artist Madonna and Just Says No to cocaine. A scene of this ostensibly free spirited gang dancing in the bar is terrifying, with the camera barely catching their movements while Howard mugs like she’s back in a Josephine Decker film. Worse still, when they spill out of the bar, is the procession of fans on bikes they bump into, pumping Strangeways, Here We Come from a boombox. It is funny to see the work of Penelope Spheeris evoked so openly in the film’s visual gestures to suburban wasteland. The youth culture vibes that she captured so piquantly in The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne’s World and other films set a broad cinematic template for this era, and it is a shame to see Shoplifters of the World execute it with such brutal inefficiency.
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The battle of the airwaves — between the metalheads and the Alts — is one sided in Shoplifters of the World, and Kijack doesn’t seem interested in the simple notion that Kiss fans might be having fun. Instead, what’s clear about these Smiths fans is that they have a sense of import (“this night will open our eyes”). The whole superior hipster culture ended a while ago, and the film’s Gen X anxieties — boredom, lack of the self, where will I go on my European holiday — don’t have any resonance to young people who haven’t even been able to leave their homes in the last year. Eventually, the sides bond when Full Metal Mickey makes Dean smoke a bowl and describes how a suicide attempt led him to discover The Smiths: “I owe them everything. They saved my life.” Heavy shit, man.
As someone who found an intense personal connection to The Smiths when I was in my early teens, it is difficult not to find a certain sentimental kinship with a project like Shoplifters of the World. But it ends up with the emotional dexterity of the modern Morrissey, Macklemore, who once wrote “When I was in 3rd grade, I thought that I was gay.” The scenes between Dean and Full Metal Mickey are easily the most interesting in Shoplifters of the World — both are having fun, at least, even if the film feels the need to gesture towards “both sides” politics in its dichotomy of metal and new wave: two white genres. “In these uncertain times of chaos and fear, a song can save your life.”
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For good measure, Kijack throws in archival footage of Morrissey and Johnny Marr sounding off about the significance of the band, which interplays with the story in scene like a cringey discussion of vegetarianism: “I heard that album, and one day I could no longer keep down my mother’s meatloaf.” It gets more frantic. A sojourn to a gay club towards the end of Shoplifters of the World, complete with an obligatory Bronski Beat needle drop, seems completely out of place as Kijak ticks off more boxes in his 80s memory hole.
Shoplifters of the World seems more affectionate to 2000s conceptions of 1980s nostalgia than to the thing itself. The mawkish bumper sticker mentality of The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the faux-extremism of Skins would draw a straight line to Kijak’s film. After all, what’s the point of having the whole Smiths catalogue if you’re not going to mine it for a few more interesting tracks than “Bigmouth Strikes Again” and “There Is a Light That Never Goes Out”? Shoplifters of the World ultimately winds up being encapsulated by a single moment: as Billy sits in his car, masturbating, the words of Manchester’s finest can be heard floating over the soundtrack: “Mother, I can feel the soil falling over my head.”
Ben Flanagan (@manlikeflan) is a film critic and programmer based in London.