Musicals without Numbers: Shoplifters of the World and the Fandom Musical

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Musicals without Numbers: Shoplifters of the World and the Fandom Musical

In the new movie Shoplifters of the World, almost every major character is a fan of the seminal English rock band The Smiths. The one guy who isn’t, a metal-loving radio DJ (Joe Manganiello), begrudgingly acknowledges their place in music history by the end of the film—which takes place in 1987, in the immediate aftermath of the band’s breakup. The young lead characters, at typical coming-of-age crossroads, are distraught by their favorite band’s demise. Over the course of a tumultuous night out, they mourn The Smiths, sing along to the band’s songs on the radio (having commandeered the DJ’s booth) and even speak to each other in fragments of Morrissey’s lyrics.

To recap: Shoplifters of the World features wall-to-wall music, characters who communicate largely through song and, in certain scenes, the kind of heightened and stylized atmosphere often seen in music videos. In other words, it’s a musical in every way…except its technical lack of musical numbers. A decade ago, it would be easy to wonder why director and co-writer Stephen Kijak didn’t simply make a Smiths version of Julie Taymor’s Beatles-themed musical Across the Universe (a movie to which Shoplifters nonetheless bears a passing resemblance). But in 2021, it fits into a separate, burgeoning subgenre: This is a fandom musical.

Fandom musicals aren’t exactly proper singing-and-dancing musicals, though they do owe a debt to single-artist, Broadway-ish movies like Universe and the Mamma Mia! series. Fandom musicals have the heedless exuberance of a full-on musical, without quite the same level of cathartic release—or rather, with the conviction that cathartic release can be found elsewhere, in the (gulp) emotional dialogue portions of the evening. Essentially, they expose the most devoted rock fans as theater kids who can’t necessarily sing.

I make this designation at least somewhat affectionately; there’s an immediacy to watching fans find an outlet for their youthful passions. Think back to 1978’s I Wanna Hold Your Hand, the Robert Zemeckis/Bob Gale comedy that made lovable, breakneck farce out of early Beatles obsession—and may have become the first fandom musical in the process. The Beatles’ influence on the genre persists to this day, producing the fantasy Yesterday just a couple of years ago. Danny Boyle’s film attempts to pay tribute by both subtraction and addition: Unsuccessful singer-songwriter Jack (Himesh Patel) gets into a bike accident during a worldwide blackout, and awakes to a world where The Beatles, as a rock group, never existed. Jack recreates their songs, claims them as his own and becomes massively famous. He essentially fakes his way into an abbreviated rock-biopic narrative.

Filled with performance-footage covers, Yesterday isn’t a proper musical—a shame, because Boyle seems born to make a contemporary song-and-dance picture. Still, the movie expresses the potential of the fandom musical in an early montage where Jack and some friends record early Beatles hits in a marathon studio session. Jack is playing songs he’s known most of his life, while his friends are hearing them for the first time, and Boyle’s amped-up filmmaking gives “I Saw Her Standing There” an extra jolt of electricity.

That electricity also courses through key scenes of Gurinder Chadha’s Blinded by the Light, which is about an English-Pakistani teenager who discovers an unexpected kinship with the music of Bruce Springsteen. (It’s based on the memoir by journalist Sarfraz Manzoor, who also co-wrote the screenplay.) Though it lacks full-on performances of Springsteen songs by cast members, it still presents the music with fanfare. When Javed (Viveik Kalra) first connects with The Boss, he walks around outdoors in a brewing storm, listening to songs on his Walkman and really feeling them, with the working-class-poetry lyrics projected all around him. Chadha also stages a couple of sequences that amount to reality-bending karaoke, with characters singing and dancing along to old Springsteen recordings blasting on the soundtrack, briefly creating their own music videos. It’s more fantastical than anything in, say, Bohemian Rhapsody, and—like the “I Saw Her Standing There” scene from Yesterday—it also feels truer to the spirit of the music it revels in.

This same spirit helps Shoplifters of the World maneuver around its biggest elephant in the room when lionizing The Smiths: The fact that frontman Morrissey has made himself known as a colossal prat with racist views on immigration. As Manganiello’s DJ debates music with the gun-toting Smiths fan (Ellar Coltrane) forcing him to play their records all night, he notes that eventually, many fans will feel betrayed by a lousy record or, ahem, remarks or beliefs from a former artistic hero that don’t seem to square with their best work. It could scarcely be more obvious if Manganiello (also a producer on the film) turned to the camera and winked. And yet in this moment, Shoplifters succinctly acknowledges the bittersweet ecstasy of fandom, that ultimate devotion that’s almost impossible to maintain through the course of a lifetime. Maybe there’s a meta sensibility to the way that Coltrane and fellow lead Helena Howard both come from semi-experimental, beloved indie movies (Boyhood for him; Madeline’s Madeline for her) and are awkwardly overemphatic in their more stock roles here. It makes sense that they’re playing hardcore fans of a disbanded rock group. Their performances are growing pains, personified.

These odd touches give Shoplifters of the World flashes of insight and likability. What it lacks, like a lot of fandom musicals, is the sustained exhilaration of a great regular musical—or even an intermittently inspired one like Across the Universe. It’s hard to beat the expressiveness of the musical form, and a few movies have managed to use it to convey a musician’s sensibility. The little-seen God Help the Girl, for example, from Belle and Sebastian’s Stuart Murdoch, digs into the complexities of loving and making music while spinning its own genuine (if handmade-looking) production numbers. That’s something these other movies address only shyly, as if spending a limited amount of pure-musical capital. Appropriately, the Smiths movie is the shyest, despite the occasional music-video flourishes. Fandom musicals make more sense if you think of them as supplanting not proper musicals, but that persistent nuisance to hardcore fans of both music and film: The pop-music biopic.

Pop biographies like Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman have proven successful with audiences and even sometimes Oscar voters, but plenty of dedicated film fans bristle at unwieldy attempts to cram all the hits and clichés into a single narrative, while hardcore fans might resent the oversimplification of musicians’ complicated careers for a mainstream audience. Yet music and biography are a natural fit, and fandom musicals find more innovative ways to combine them. Blinded by the Light is directly biographical, just not of Springsteen himself. Yesterday imagines the history of the Beatles wiped clean and rebooted. Shoplifters of the World depicts a moment where the music of The Smiths is transferred from the band to their hardcore devotees.

It’s significant too that both Yesterday and Blinded by the Light place South Asian (by way of England) men at the center of their narratives. Though it might feel problematic to have these characters worshipping white rock heroes, showcasing non-white fans also helps wrest pop-music narratives away from the white boomers who tend to define them. In some recent hit biopics, this has extended into boomer subjects looking over the filmmakers’ shoulders. You can practically hear the surviving members of Queen negotiating over who will be designated as Bohemian Rhapsody bad guys. (Amusingly, Elton John’s self-produced Rocketman makes distinctly different choices, sometimes about the exact same people.)

Fandom musicals can indulge in their own form of biopic-style sanitization, with shopworn clichés like the best friends who are actually in love with each other; the obstinate family member who is fully and inexplicably won over by a climactic speech; solving problems via kissing; and an overarching belief in the healing power of rock and roll. And so far, Shoplifters of the World is the main modern entry that really sinks into the band’s arcana, what with its incessant quoting and referencing, feeding into a you-had-to-be-there immersion that parallels the playful ephemera of I Wanna Hold Your Hand. It’s a kind of niche Smiths frenzy to the Zemeckis film’s Beatlemania. Even then, a casual Smiths fan could recognize most of the actual songs. (I know this because I am one, and I did.) Maybe Smiths diehards would have their own version of my annoyance that Jack from Yesterday doesn’t seem to have any opinions about any particular Beatles songs, and shows little affinity for those that aren’t global hits. (Wouldn’t it be a kick to see him try and fail to canonize “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”?) Don’t get me started on how Blinded by the Light never mentions Tunnel of Love, despite taking place the year of its release, and somehow entirely skips over Nebraska during Javed’s Springsteen crash course.

These are nitpicky fan concerns, to be sure. It’s a bit early to expect a fandom musical to get into High Fidelity music-nerd territory, to say nothing of how insufferable that might be. (The hints offered by Shoplifters are not encouraging.) But as cringeworthy as it is to suggest doing anything for the fans, it would make sense if movies obsessed with pop music continued to distill much of what people seem to love best about both biopics and jukebox musicals, rather than feeding them through a tedious narrative. The simple pleasures of singing along to ABBA are a straight line into what’s most delightful about the half-boisterous, half-maddening Mamma Mia! films, which at least spare us turning the personal lives of ABBA into some kind of inspirational saga. Sometimes, fandom musicals even manage to touch the real thing—the rush of great musical films, that is. I Wanna Hold Your Hand might be the best movie about fandom ever made, and if nothing else, the “Born to Run” and “I Saw Her Standing There” sequences in Blinded and Yesterday are better-staged than the entirety of many contemporary musicals. Shoplifters can’t make any such lofty claims, yet the effort is still touching in its cornball way. If cultural touchstones are going to keep flashing before our eyes and ears, at least fandom musicals might help make better sense of that endless looping canon.

Jesse Hassenger writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including The A.V. Club, Polygon, The Week, NME, and, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching, listening to, or eating.