Somewhere along the way, Coldplay became a punchline — the epitome of MOR radio rock, or ‘bedwetter’ music, as Alan McGee put it. But for all that Chris Martin and his bandmates — drummer Will Champion, guitarist Jonny Buckland, and bassist Guy Berryman — have a reputation for blandness, their impact has been seismic, their staying-power evident. In 1997, they were four spotty, gawky University College London students making bedroom demos. Five years later they headlined Glastonbury.
Today, they still pack out stadiums worldwide, and that contrast, from small beginnings to staggering success, forms the backbone of Mat Whitecross’ documentary. The filmmaker — also behind Oasis doc Supersonic — spent two decades following the band with his camera, and he weaves compelling threads from early footage directly to glittering present-day stadium singalongs. The film positions Martin as a gifted communicator, someone who writes songs for his audience as much as for himself, and Whitecross skilfully charts the trajectory of Martin’s melodies from their genesis in the studio to the stage, where thousands of enraptured fans sing his refrains back en masse.
It’s not a warts-and-all rock doc, but a celebration of the band.
Where concert footage from their most recent tour shows how far Coldplay have come, the early years are the most interesting — their first gig as Starfish at The Laurel Tree pub in Camden, their ‘photo shoot’ in a Tesco photobooth, being hand-picked by Steve Lamacq for a Maida Vale studio session months before their debut Parachutes dropped. The storytelling comes through a patchwork of audio interviews, in a similar style to Asif Kapadia’s Amy. If it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between voices of the backing group, it rarely matters — this is the band as a unit, telling their story together.
Martin, particularly, comes across well on screen. Despite his tabloid ubiquity — largely thanks to his relationship with Gwyneth Paltrow — he’s far from a swaggering rock ’n’ roll personality. But Whitecross crafts a compelling account of a man of both wide-eyed sincerity and sharp, knowing wit, who’s as prone to spouting new-agey truisms as he is delivering self-deprecating potshots (“I think everything we’ve done is shit, that’s why I keep trying to do new things,” he says at one point).
While A Head Full Of Dreams paints a portrait of a largely harmonious band, allusions to darker times are made and moved away from frustratingly quickly. A brief moment early on when drummer Will was kicked out clearly still stings, but isn’t lingered upon. A period of depression following fifth album Mylo Xyloto is mentioned and instantly forgotten, as is addiction circa X&Y. Considering Coldplay seem to be past a lot of that now, the film’s reluctance to dig any deeper is noticeable.
Still, it’s clear A Head Full Of Dreams was never intended as a warts-and-all rock-doc — it’s a celebration of Coldplay, an upbeat and slightly hyperactively edited greatest hits-meets-potted history. It’s a film designed to remind you why millions love the band supposedly nobody likes.