If you don’t know that the Smiths were the greatest pop band of the 1980s — in fact, of the last half-century — then what do you know? American media underrated the British group during its brief artistic ferment (1984–87), which is the setting of the beguiling new movie Shoplifters of the World. Four Colorado teens react to MTV’s announcement in the summer of ’87 of the Smiths’ breakup by acting upon the fears and longings that the band’s records had expressed. Cleo (Helena Howard), Dean (Ellar Coltrane), Sheila (Elena Kampouris), and Billy (Nick Krause) embark on a blowout the day before Patrick (James Bloor) enlists in “Reagan’s army.”
This is an alternative-rock version of American Graffiti. Director Stephen Kijak and co-screenwriter Lorianne Hall tell the story using a similarly expansive playlist of greatest hits — only this movie isn’t a nostalgia trip, because Smiths songs express how the characters live. Their view of the world, their political and romantic desires, confirm everything that the Smiths (ingenious composer-guitarist Johnny Marr, drummer Mike Joyce, bassist Andy Rourke, and the incomparable lead singer–lyricist Morrissey) were making music about an ocean away in Manchester. Restless, precocious biracial Cleo paraphrases: “Denver, so much to answer for.”
The music’s dramatic resonances are, moment to moment, breathtaking. Note the driving escapade where a group of cyclists (a motif from the music video for “Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before”) surround Cleo’s car and the sound of their spinning bike wheels blends with the ringing guitar intro for “William, It Was Really Nothing,” romantic resignation in 2:11 shimmering minutes. Romantic rebellion inspires Dean, a Morrissey lookalike and wannabe who works in a small music store, to invade the hard-rock radio station KISS-FM and, at gunpoint, force disc jockey Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello) to play a Smiths marathon.
Full Metal Mickey’s own rebellion, a generation ahead, grasps Dean’s alienation — and Mickey’s good ears appreciate Marr’s musicianship. Older and younger brothers in rock, they share a sense of social estrangement that youth culture makes real. So while this film breaks from American Graffiti’s benign condescension, it recognizes that the Smiths’ emotional sweep and punk fervor answered alienated adolescent daydreaming; it becomes, by necessity, an anti–John Hughes movie.
Hughes’s more commercial taste shied away from punk-accented, sexual pop — such as Sheila whining “I’m so tired of being celibate” in response to Morrissey, the first rock star to use “celibate” in rock lingo. Sheila’s Madonna-clone sexual tension highlights the paradox of pop culture exploiting youth’s sexuality. Hughes never took that subject seriously, but it is crucial here. Sheila’s criticism of Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink ranks with Whit Stillman’s Lady and the Tramp disquisition in The Last Days of Disco. Cleo (a reverse Molly Ringwald) pushes her clan toward adult risk and anchors the film’s high point: crashing a party in which sexually avid teens dance to the rollicking opening bars of “The Queen Is Dead.” It is the music video that the song always needed. This interpretation insinuates the rule-breaking sexual postures prevalent in Eighties pop androgyny, in contrast to today’s rapid-onset gender dysphoria. That’s why the boys here, some waving Morrissey’s emblematic gladioli, all seem sort of gay. The girls accept them. They’ve all learned sensitivity from the Smiths. That’s the motivation behind Patrick saying, “If I can’t be myself, maybe I can get Billy to be himself.”
Every character faces the dilemma of self-actualization and moral discovery that distinguished the Smiths from mere teen pop.
It’s quite different from Billie Eilish’s too-sensitive-to-live act, which extends Kurt Cobain’s suicidal defeatism but is certainly a betrayal of the Smiths’ Manchester miserabilism. Morrissey’s angst reflected Margaret Thatcher–era disenchantment, but it goes back to the Angry Young Men and even further to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure and Oscar Wilde. In that tradition, Shoplifters, as shockingly funny about sex and suicide as Morrissey, captures the lively, vividly articulate substance of the Smiths’ music and the essential will to live it expresses (“How Soon Is Now?”). Fans knew and felt this before the New York Times saddled Morrissey with the unfair label “mope rock,” which bourgeois pop critics duly repeated. That slam provided cover for their latent homophobia. (A begrudging Village Voice review of the Smiths wrestled with the word “homophile,” and this was before Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner came out.) Set in middle America, Shoplifters provides a more generous rock-history narrative.
The rapprochement between DJ and record-store clerk corrects the dishonesty of Cameron Crowe’s rock movie Almost Famous by personalizing the working-class experience of pop-art expression and commercialized communication. Manganiello’s speech about “great last albums” contains recognizable compassion — as does Sheila’s postcoital glance toward a smiling Smiths poster, summing up pop’s most devastating irony. Even outré Gregg Araki might approve.
About that song: The film’s title comes from the last single release from the Smiths, the magnificent “Shoplifters of the World, Unite.” It’s heard when Cleo pilfers cassettes from Dean’s store and struts outside in slo-mo, like De Niro entering the bar in Mean Streets to the Rolling Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Her punk gesture is raised by the Smiths into existential derision. It’s not a cry for social chaos but a flip of the bird that gives grandeur to rebellious individuality.
Marr’s reverberant tremolo (the Bo Diddley beat sustained, thus honored) makes the song seductive — an anthem for all seasons. I was thrown when Morrissey twisted the lyric at his 2017 concert into “Trumpshifters of the World,” but now it seems prophetic rather than opportunistic. On disc, Morrissey resists an outsider’s vulgar self-pity and tosses off the song’s challenge with the soigné and stoic “never mind, never mind” — which a different set of American listeners later corrupted into Nirvana’s petulant anarchy.
Kijak’s film may be a Smiths overdose for some, but it has the sweet spirit of indie rock, not mumblecore. Little-known rock-and-roll movies such as Bandslam, 24 Hour Party People, Dogs in Space, and Run-DMC’s Tougher Than Leather were similarly infectious. Although mainstream American media never gave the Smiths their due, Kijak conveys the great waves of feeling that roll through the Smiths records.