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Based on 1980s legend, ‘Shoplifters of the World’ is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama

UPDATED: Fri., March 26, 2021

Joe Manganiello stars in and produced "Shoplifters of the World."  (Courtesy)
Joe Manganiello stars in and produced "Shoplifters of the World." (Courtesy)
By Katie Walsh Tribune News Service

For years, a myth persisted that in 1987, a young Smiths fan held up a local Denver radio station at gunpoint with a stash of Smiths tapes and demanded they play the Manchester band’s music for hours. It’s even been said that this was the inspiration for the rock comedy “Airheads.”

The legend has since been debunked, and the true story is that, while the fan did intend to take over the station, he lost his nerve at the last minute and turned himself in. But legends never die, and now it’s the inspiration for Stephen Kijak’s Smiths tribute film, “Shoplifters of the World,” which opens with the promise that it’s “based on true intentions.”

Ellar Coltrane plays the station hijacker, Dean, a young record store clerk who is inspired to do something that will go down in musical history on the day that The Smiths break up. He is, of course, trying to impress a girl, the magnetic and elusive Cleo (Helena Howard), a die-hard Smiths fan whom he allows to pocket as many cassette tapes as she wants from his store.

“Shoplifters of the World” in fact belongs to Cleo, not just because Howard is such a dizzyingly charismatic actress, but because her story, which unfolds parallel to Dean’s, is a heartfelt coming-of-age drama that perfectly embodies the youthful angst, ennui and romantic longing expressed so well in the music of the Smiths. She, too, longs to escape her own humdrum town.

While Dean spends the night bonding over music (at gunpoint) in the KISS 101 station with DJ Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello, who also produced the film), Cleo spends one last night with her friends before Billy (Nick Strause) ships off to basic training.

They pick up Sheila (Elena Kampouris) and Patrick (James Bloor), and the foursome head out for one last epic all-nighter, a night that will test their bonds, dreams, sexuality and themselves all soundtracked to 20 great Smiths songs from their ’80s heyday.

Much like frontman Morrissey’s lyrics, “Shoplifters of the World” is incredibly earnest and deeply felt, though there are elements that feel artificial. But you can’t help but be drawn into their personal struggles. Cleo and Sheila, especially, are just so cool despite their flaws and foibles, while Billy and Patrick thrash against masculine social norms and expectations . It’s beautifully shot; cinematographer Andrew Wheeler rides the line between realism and visual excess to draw us into this night of wanton abandon. Steadicam operator Tanner Carlson’s kinetic camerawork, especially on the dance floor of a coffee shop, house party or gay bar is expertly executed and utterly intoxicating.

Structured in “sides” (like a record or a tape) titled after different Smiths songs, interviews and archival footage of the band is interspersed throughout, creating a true tribute to the Smiths, of the 1980s, it should be emphasized. Full Metal Mickey at one point mentions the ways in which one’s heroes can disappoint, which couldn’t be a more apt way to approach Morrissey these days.

But if you love the Smiths, and that magical teenage time when music, and your connection to it, both shared and personal, is the most important thing in the world, you’re likely to swoon for “Shoplifters of the World.”

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