Legend has it that the night The Smiths announced the band’s break-up, a distraught fan in Denver hijacked a local Top 40 radio station, forcing the DJ at gunpoint to play Smiths tunes for hours on end. Whether a strange-but-true story, or merely a fabulous myth, the sensational ’80s episode lives on in the memories of The Smiths faithful. And it inspired writer-director Stephen Kijak’s wistful, sardonically funny Shoplifters of the World, a new feature “based on true intentions.”
Kijak — who has directed an eclectic string of music documentaries, from Stones in Exile to Backstreet Boys: Show Em What You’re Made Of — developed the script from an idea by writer-producer Lorianne Hall. “She had grown up in Denver,” he says. “And she remembered this story of the maybe hold-up at the radio station, that maybe did or didn’t happen kind of thing.”
In Shoplifters, the hold-up happens. Record store clerk Dean (Boyhood‘s Ellar Coltrane) keeps hard rock DJ Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello) spinning songs by The Smiths all night. “Panic,” “William, It Was Really Nothing,” “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and more than a dozen other Smiths tracks serve as the soundtrack for one last night out for four young friends soon headed their separate ways.
Kijak based the film’s fictional foursome — Cleo (Helena Howard), Sheila (Elena Kampouris), Billy (Nick Krause), and sexually confused Morrissey fan, Patrick (James Bloor) — on himself and his friends from high school. And the characters’ Smiths love came naturally, as Kijak can vividly picture the first time he heard one of the band’s songs.
“We had a great college radio station in my town: WKKL,” recalls the Massachusetts native. “It was Cape Cod Community College and they just played the best shit. This would have been like high school, ’84 or ’85, and they played ‘How Soon Is Now’ on the radio one day. I was sitting in my room on a little shag blue rug. I can just see it, like this crappy stereo I had, one of those ones that was like a radio on the bottom, a record player on the top, that we got at Sears. And they played this amazing song and I just couldn’t believe it.”
In totally ’80s fashion, Kijak didn’t manage to tape the song off the radio that day, and had no idea who it was. Still, a few weeks later at a record store, he was “rummaging through the import bin, and saw the 12-inch,” he says. “It’s blue, it says The Smiths. And there’s a picture of a man on the cover and it looks like he’s grabbing his crotch. It’s a very strange, borderline homoerotic image. And I just thought, ‘I’ll have that.’ So I didn’t know what it was and then put it on at home. I was like, ‘Oh my God, it’s that song!’ It just opened up that whole world — I became obsessed.”
Not only the band’s sound and lyrics, but also their look and attitude set them apart. “They weren’t like Duran Duran. They weren’t like the Cure. They weren’t Goth, they weren’t New Romantic. They were weirdly plain but retro and thrift store-ish.” Like many Smiths fans, Kijak took cues from the band’s broodingly handsome, dandyish frontman Morrissey.
“[Morrisey] gave you a different image of masculinity or a way to be,” says Kijak. “so the style became a badge of honor. It created a tribe.
“He had all these sly messages that were ambiguously sexual or very, very gay, gay-coded, even the album cover. And it gave you clues and cues to discover other kinds of culture. I didn’t read Shelagh Delaney’s Taste of Honey until I learned that [Morrissey] stole half his lyrics from her play. It just led you to find things like books and old movies, that again become part of your arsenal of ‘This makes me different.’ I mean, granted, we were all marching to the beat of the same different drummer, but they were cool drummers.”
The band was cool — but as the film’s DJ Full Metal Mickey warns Dean, beware that your heroes today might come to disappoint you tomorrow. Indeed, Morrissey’s present-day reputation for bigoted, nationalist views and statements is “a complicated, complex thing to wrestle with,” says Kijak. “But we held on to the idea that, look, those characters are who they are because of not only who he was, but who [The Smiths] were then. They were a band that stood for something, that now we all carry those ethics forward and live by them.”
Shoplifters of the World is “still celebrating something about our youth,” adds Kijak. “Ultimately, this is me and my friends and a really precious time in our lives. And it’s trying to say something about friendship and inclusivity. That’s the message I want to lead with.”
Shoplifters of the World is available on Friday, March 26 in theaters, on demand, and digital.
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