‘Shoplifters of the World’ Is a Love Letter to the Smiths

It can be a traumatic experience for anyone, especially a young person, when their favorite band breaks up, but the antihero of the coming-of-age musical “Shoplifters of the World” takes his grief to the next level. Following the 1987 disbandment of the Smiths, Dean (Ellar Coltrane), a twenty-something clerk at a Denver record store, holds Full Metal Mickey (Joe Manganiello), a disc jockey at a popular local rock station, at gunpoint and forces him to play only tracks by the Brit alt-rock band all night. While this seemingly desperate act may look like a cry for help from an unstable man, it is actually a romantic gesture intended for Cleo (Helena Howard), a free-spirited young woman and fellow Smiths fan who has become the object of his affection. His love language is letting her swipe merchandise from the record store on his watch.

That same fateful evening Dean holds Mickey hostage, Cleo and her three best friends attempt to forget their sorrows by partaking in a night of hard partying. All four college-aged pals find themselves at crossroads in their respective lives. Cleo has big dreams of going to Paris, but she can’t even make a go of it at the local community college. Her best friend, Billy (Nick Krause), is about to embark on a stint in the military. At first, Billy seems like he may be a rival to Dean for Cleo’s heart, but he actually is still figuring out is sexuality, as is Patrick (James Bloor), who, inspired by the Smiths’ frontman Morrissey, has decided to embrace celibacy, much to the displeasure of his sexually frustrated, longtime girlfriend Sheila (Elena Kampouris).

These themes pertaining to sexuality and what it means to be a man were a big draw for Coltrane. “That kind of extends out into the whole film,” they explained to Entertainment Voice during a recent phone call. “Morrissey kind of represents, he especially represented during that time, this very non-traditional version of masculinity.” Coltrane desired to explore a character who is dangerous, but also has this effeminate side. “And, also, the opportunity to be crazy and wave a gun around is not something I’ve gotten to do in any other films, or in real life, for that matter,” they added with a laugh.

While “Shoplifters of the World” is a fitting tribute to one of the most influential bands of the eighties –– Over 20 of the Smiths’ songs are included in the film, as are archival interviews with Morrissey guitarist Johnny Marr –– One does not have to be a fan of the band or even familiar with them at all to understand the emotional journeys of Dean and the others. Although the Smith’s broke up seven years before he was even born, Coltrane said they absolutely related to their character, opening up about what it was like to play such an intense person.

“On set, there was a lot of just keeping my energy up, because he’s in a manic state for most of the film. There’s a lot of restlessness and spastic-ness to his energy and spontaneity.” They explained how their scenes were shot at a fast pace, often going late into the night. “We were just going and going. In a way, that was really helpful, to kind of not really have time to overthink any of it too much in between takes or in between set-ups. I just had to keep the adrenaline going, the pain and the passion fresh, and then just put the gun in my hand and kind of let it happen.”

Surprisingly, or maybe not surprisingly, “Shoplifters of the World” is not just a story dreamed up by writer-director Stephen Kijak, but is actually inspired by true events. In real life, the man on whom Dean is based never even made it inside the radio station, but Dean does, and an interesting dynamic develops between him and Mickey, a man who lives on a diet of Kiss and other testosterone-fueled musical acts. It goes without saying that these two have very different ideas of what it means to be a man, and a very interesting dialogue transpires that night, some of it about the role music plays in processing emotions.

According to Coltrane, their relationship with Manganiello off camera paralleled what is shown in the film. “I am an effeminate person who grew up listening to emo music and likes to look pretty, and Joe is like a big, tough metalhead dude who is very intelligent and sensitive, but that’s his masculinity and that’s his culture. Our conversations off camera were remarkably similar to the conversations between our characters, and over the course of filming we did kind of do a lot to bridge that gap and understand each other, and understand where those different cultures come from, and where those different versions of masculinity come from.”

At one point, an interesting debate happens between Dean and Mickey when Dean states that music is salvation, and Mickey retorts that it’s a form of escapism. What are Coltrane’s thoughts? “Ten years ago, I probably would have said that music is salvation. It’s not that I don’t think that anymore, but I just think it can be both, you know? It really depends on the music and the person and why you’re listening to a certain band or song. But, music has been my salvation, definitely, many times in my life. I’ve always had a very deep, [meaningful] relationship with the music that I listen to, especially when I was a teenager. There are definitely songs and bands that I don’t know I would have made it without.” 

Coltrane went on to discuss how their experience playing the titular boy in the groundbreaking drama “Boyhood,” which was shot over the course of twelve years beginning when Coltrane was six, shaped them as an actor. He gives much credit to director Richard Linklater. “He is very much an actor’s director. He is so hands on, and so engaged with what’s going on with the characters and how the actors are approaching it. That’s where his head is at throughout the entire process, the emotionality of the characters. I thrive in that kind of environment and in that kind of relationship with a filmmaker and with a project. There are other actors who maybe prefer to be a little more insulated and have their own bubble that they act in.”

They continued, “I think just because that was so long an experience and so formative in being my first acting experience, that’s how I learned to act, in tandem with the director and very intimately with the director, and I definitely felt that with Stephen. This project is really personal to Stephen, and I think all of the characters of Stephen are reflections of different parts of Stephen. Definitely with Dean, he had a lot of input and it was very much a collaboration creating that character.”

Coltrane reunited with their ‘Boyhood’ co-star Ethan Hawke for last year’s “The Good Lord Bird,” a limited series created by and starring Hawke. Coltrane once again played his son. “That was just a blast,” they said of the experience. “I love Ethan so much. He’s one of my oldest friends at this point. That was the first time we had gotten to work together again… Ethan is like a Renaissance man. He’s a powerhouse, especially on that set. It was incredible watching him work. He was running the show, and he’s writing, and he’s starring in it, and he’s working with all the actors. He was just so engaged with every part of it. It was really inspiring, and I feel like I developed so much as an actor from being a part of that team and that environment.”

Shoplifters of the World” releases March 26 on VOD and in select theaters.