Arena rock giants and frequent butt of jokes Coldplay are drawing even more eyerolls than usual thanks to their most recent lackluster releases and, perhaps most offensively to some, a collaboration with The Chainsmokers. But it’s easy to forget that at one point, they put out stunningly beautiful Radiohead-adjacent work like Safety EP and Parachutes, the chilling, piano-driven A Rush Of Blood to the Head and, however kitschy their French Revolution attire, the rich alternative rock empire of Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends.
While their 2011 and 2014 albums paled in comparison to their best work, they arguably had some redeeming qualities. That’s not the story with the band’s latest LP A Head Full Of Dreams. Their 2015 album sees Chris Martin singing “got me feeling drunk and high” on their aimless, clumsily-titled Beyonce collaboration, “Hymn For The Weekend” and that was just one nail in the coffin of the Coldplay that so many of us fell in love with.
With their massive, two year A Head Full of Dreams world tour wrapped up and rumors that the quartet are to start recording again next year, what better way to rake in more cash than dropping a career-spanning documentary just before the holidays? The documentary, also titled A Head Full of Dreams, was made by their longtime friend and collaborator Mat Whitecross who met the band in 1996 and has been filming them ever since.
The film opens with a phone call recording of Mat Whitecross and Chris Martin (who presumably was unaware he was being recorded) where the Coldplay leader tells his friend that he doesn’t need to see the film first to give his approval. He trusts Whitecross. Though Martin offers one caveat—just don’t start the film with one of those cliched backstage band walk-on sequences. Whitecross charmingly decides to open the film with exactly that. Though the act is infinitely more daring than much of the band’s career, it sets a jolly tone as the members of Coldplay continue to carry that torch.
What’s unusual and touching about this documentary is that the early days of bands that became juggernauts weren’t normally documented with such intimacy. Thanks to cheap camcorders and smartphones, there’s a volume of footage capturing nearly all the pivotal moments in their formation and their early milestones. Viewers get to see their early dorm room hangouts at University College London, with the band playing acoustic guitars and Chris Martin’s moptop looking worryingly long. Their jovial yet awkward demeanors are evident but it’s clear that Martin is the center of this tiny universe.
One of the best sequences is a scrawny, short-haired, brace-faced Martin proclaiming to the camera that in four years’ time, his band will be doing something massive, and that you’d do well to remember their names now. Though there are few non-superfans that could remember the names of any other member of Coldplay save their skinny, hyperactive frontman, he did get one thing right as Whitecross quickly jumps to the band playing a headlining set at the Glastonbury Festival, almost exactly four years after Martin’s proclamation.
One thing the film highlights is just how stark the jump is from their early self-effacing, soft ballads to pop crossover hits with Beyonce, Jay-Z and Rihanna. In between footage of the band playing to nearly 100,000 people in Sao Paulo, Brazil and La Plata, Argentina on their recent AHFOD tour, we see the band goofing off on the train together, reading the NME, which would eventually help them launch their career after being named a “Band to Watch” in 1999. The snippets of live arena footage, with a sea of humanity jumping, crying and singing along amid rainbow streamers and LED wristbands timed to change color with the setlist, is moving and hair-raising, no matter how you feel about the songs being performed.
We also get many peeks into the studio from throughout their career and apart from a rough patch during the making of their third album, Coldplay exude an untameable energy and an unquenchable passion for making music. Their last album A Head Full of Dreams was designed to be a polychromatic, hopeful utopia and though some might roll their eyes in disgust at this call for holding hands and coexisting, the band actually believes in it as do their millions of fans across the globe. Martin says some people might think of it as “hippie nonsense,” but it’s safe to say that most people’s criticism comes from a place of platitudes and empty, corny calls for togetherness, especially in a time where this kind of “Kumbaya,” “can’t we all just get along” type of songs appear tone deaf to the justified collective outrage.
The documentary also touches on their difficult periods as a band which haven’t been as publicized as Martin’s marriage with Gwyneth Paltrow (and their eventual “conscious uncoupling”). Though bassist Guy Berryman’s drinking problem is mentioned and quickly swept under the rug, the band’s early conflict with drummer Will Champion is more fully addressed. Unfortunately we don’t get a ton of insight from the band members apart from the fact that it was a difficult time and especially uncomfortable when they had to fire him. The other three members thought he couldn’t keep up during the recording sessions of their first album, so they felt they had no choice but to kick him out. Champion’s mother was also gravely ill at the time, which made things tense, but we don’t get any sense of the band’s confrontations or spats during that time—something that could’ve humanized a band who many view as too methodical and polished. In comparison to the cocaine overdoses, fist fights and hookers of many other rock docs, this was certainly their most glaring chance to display how being in a band can put relationships to the test.
What’s also illuminating is despite the classic that Parachutes has become, Coldplay admitted they had no idea what they were doing in the studio and suffered from a band identity crisis. Most frustratingly, they proclaim that their latest album is where they view themselves in their most fully realized form—a bit of a dig at the records that actually made them great, regardless of how unsure they felt of themselves at the time.
For all the better-left-out footage of boardroom meetings about arena stage designs, we also get interesting footage of the band messing around with Brian Eno during the Viva La Viva sessions and lesser-known stories of the band’s early struggles in America—playing radio show bills with much heavier bands where they got cans lobbed at them.
One part that is also glazed over to the film’s detriment is the personal reaction to their meteoric rise and subsequent fame. Martin obviously received the lion’s share of publicity and tabloid coverage, and the rest of the band admitted they were annoyed at first, but later realized the perks of not being hassled constantly in public.
At one point, Martin says, “We care about what we do to a stupid degree” and “There’s no point being in a band unless you want to make the best thing ever” and it’s hard to downplay his sincerity and his infectious big kid energy. A glimpse into one of Martin’s early lyric books reveals the scribbled words, “Sincere emotion is all” and “Never give up” and while asked about the band’s setlist process, Martin gave a facetious, laugh-out-loud explanation of the science behind it (he jokes it comes from a Venn diagram of old songs, new songs, merch sales and a combination of the band’s influences R.E.M. and U2 aka “RE2”).
Perhaps the most enlightening part—however short—is when Martin discusses the personal difficulties that fueled Ghost Stories, a period when he was going through mental health struggles with his divorce and he wasn’t as much of the smiley ball of energy he usually is. The band decided to rally around him musically to make the cathartic record that Martin needed to make in order to feel like himself again. What’s interesting though is what feels like their purposeful apprehension to give details on the fighting that they often mention. The closest thing we get is faux anger when the band pretends to be mad at each other before their unofficial fifth member Phil Harvey walks in and they burst into laughter.
Though the film largely evades the tough questions, the sequences of the not-yet-world-famous band and their recent arena concerts are easily the most affecting. Your opinion on the remainder of the film rests on which of the three categories you fall into—if you think they always made “bedwetter music,” if you think they’ve made stone cold classic records up until 2008 or if you think their new album is going to bring about world peace with fireworks and their hopeful pop/rock.