Entertainment

‘Shoplifters of the World’ Pays a Homage to The Smiths, But Can’t Erase the Morrissey of It All

We spoke to the director and stars about what it was like to make a love letter to a band and artist that betrayed their past.
Alex Zaragoza
Brooklyn, US
April 1, 2021, 11:00am
a scene from Shoplifters of the World
Credit: RLJA Films

“Your heroes will grow old and change and betray the past.” This is the one acknowledgement to Morrissey’s xenophobia and racism in Shoplifters of the World, the latest film from director/documentarian Stephen Kijak, starring Boyhood’s Ellar Coltrane. 

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The movie takes the real life urban legend of a young fan of The Smiths, who, in 1987, held a Denver radio station hostage and forced them to play the hugely influential softboy band’s music, and fictionalizes it. In Shoplifters, Dean (Coltrane) busts into a metal radio station, gun in hand, and forces the DJ (Joe Manganiello) to help him memorialize the band on the day of their breakup, giving Dean and the hammy misfits of the greater Colorado area—including his dream girl Cleo, whom he shows his affections by letting her shoplift at the record store he works at—a proper send-off for their favorite band. Through this act of dramatic rebellion, this band of eccentrics tackle their own insecurities and feelings of alienation, and highlights how The Smiths became a beacon of hope and understanding to outsiders for generations. 

Like many, The Smiths helped me form my identity as a kid, and it’s probably why I was so annoying for most of my adolescence. I had the posters; I have the tattoo to commemorate my love of the band, and a friendship forged because of a mutual love for The Smiths; I’ve written about The Smiths and Morrissey, and their place of worship within the Mexican American community, of which I am part of; and I’ve discussed the betrayal of a hero letting you down, and their fans doing so too. Shoplifters shows the strength and devotion of the fandom, in all its embarrassing intensity. In fact, I’d say it’s unabashedly corny— the cheese is so high you’d need a lifetime supply of Lactaid to get through it. I cringed each time a character inserted Smiths lyrics into their flamboyantly melancholic conversations or rolled their eyes at the dreariness of their hometown. 

But I realized a lot of that was probably because I saw myself at my most mortifyingly teenaged and dramatic. Smiths fans are some of the corniest people on Earth, and I know this because I have been a card carrying member of the culture for over 20 years—I even busted out my at-home karaoke mic to sing along with the Shoplifters’ full Smiths soundtrack while watching. Nerd shit. We’re out here wearing our hearts on our sleeves and our glasses rimmed thick and feeling like the loneliest kid in school, even well into adulthood.

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But there’s the Morrissey of it all. Yet another story about separating the art from the artist sounds as appealing as a chewing on aluminum foil, but in the case of Shoplifters, it’s tough to get past what we know now of the lead singer of arguably Manchester’s greatest gift to music. Especially when the film focuses so hard on the Morrissey of the 80s, who was outspoken in his defense of the underdog and the discriminated, and was fervently anti-monarchy. According to Kijak, Morrissey and Smiths co-songwriter and guitarist Johnny Marr signed off on the movie after reading the script, and it’s hard for me not to assume it’s because it’s a love letter to the past and not an outright acknowledgement of the present. That line about heroes betraying the past, delivered by DJ Full Metal Mickey (Manganiello) to die hard Moz head Dean, was Kijak’s way of addressing the planet-sized elephant in the room anytime Morrissey is in the conversation. 

Morrissey, We're Through

“Yeah, that's that's a direct address,” said Kijak, a longtime fan of The Smiths since his teenage years in the 80s, in an interview. “And, I got to say, because the film took so long to make, things seemed to get even worse [with Morrissey] well after we had locked it, so you’re like, god, was that enough? I think the film is aware of it, and I put a lot of things in the film, like clues.”

Indeed, for fans of The Smiths and Morrissey as a solo artist, creating their own relationship to the music when they’ve been betrayed by their hero has been a personal journey. How do you continue to engage in the music that was so formative to your life when it now becomes a reminder of a massive disappointment?

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“It's really tricky to kind of disentangle what that means to feel so connected to someone, and identify with someone so much and then kind of realize that maybe there's this other part of them that you don't identify with and really don't want to be identified with,” said Coltrane, who wasn’t a fan of The Smiths growing up but grew connected to them after a painful breakup. “But at the same time, you know, not wanting to reject the part of yourself that was validated by that person’s art.”

In the case of Kijak, making a movie honoring The Smiths and Morrissey provokes even deeper questions: Is glorifying the latter as a pop culture icon and focusing only on his views of the past essentially erasing the harm he has caused since? Can he acknowledge the impact Morrissey had and continue to have on people while holding him accountable? Is it stupid to even bother with any of this anymore because it’s exhausting? 

the shoplifters of the world record store

Helena Howard as Cleo, stealing tapes from the record store. Credit: RLJA Films

“We want to stand against what has maybe come to be seen as anti-immigrant or any hateful rhetoric,” he explained. “It's just so disappointing, too, because that’s our nostalgia you're messing with, man. You want to hang on to it because it meant so much to you at one time. So yeah, it's a really difficult question to wrestle with. We’re painfully, painfully aware of it, and the problem of it, but we wanted this to be a celebration of something that was bigger than that, that had to do with our youth, and ourselves and our culture as kids back then.”

While the film doesn’t beat anyone over the head with answers to those questions and concerns, Kijak made certain choices to address the hateful words Morrissey has said.

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“Like look at the cast. I wanted it to be a diverse group of kids who represented all different aspects of that fandom at the time,” he said. “It wasn’t a token decision. I mean, my best friend was like the only Black girl in her school who was a total new waver punk, and she felt othered in so many ways. These were her bands, this was her style, and she doesn't see herself represented in stuff like that.”

Helena Howard, who plays Cleo, is that dose of diversity. Though not having any Mexican lead characters seems like an oversight, considering the stronghold we have in the fandom (though Jose Maldonado, aka The Mexican Morrissey, lead singer of The Sweet & Tender Hooligans makes a cameo, and supporting character, Bi-Bri, is played by Latinx actor Tonatiuh Elizarraraz), Howard showing up with her jacket emblazoned with gladiolas and The Smiths patches, crying at the loss of her favorite band felt like looking into a teenage mirror.

Howard, who is mixed race, grew up with her mom, artist Julia Binet, being a hardcore new waver. “Growing up in that punk new wave goth scene and going out to all the clubs with her friends and just dancing and having a great time listening to the music,” said Howard, “that just translated into my childhood, growing up with the music as well. I just love it so much.” She recalled dancing in their family living room with her brother to “How Soon Is Now” and having her mom record it and post it on YouTube. 

“I am hopeful that this film will show people how uniquely different people were back in the 80s,” said Howard. “People were still dealing with the same things that they’re dealing with now in terms of sexuality, identity, and trying to find themselves. That has remained a constant factor throughout time, and I think that will be relatable.”

The band certainly helped generations of people find not just themselves but others like them to commune with. “I think that's the great thing about music and really any type of art makes you less lonely, less alone,” said Howard.

In the end, Kijak hopes that the legacy of The Smiths allows fans to celebrate the positive impact that the band had on their life and worldview.

“What they stood for, any art that was made by those four people back then, kind of made us who we are today,” he said. “And who are we: we're accepting, open, caring, loving, giving people. We've gone forth with those ethics and we continue to live that in our day to day lives.”

Update (April 1): This post has been updated to more thoroughly outline the movie’s cast.

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