Here’s a Coldplay documentary so charming and sincere that it will make you feel bad about mocking the band’s music for the last 16 years (aside from intermittent appreciation for what Brian Eno got out of them on “Viva La Vida,” of course). Mat Whitecross’ “Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams” is more than just a look inside the third-highest grossing concert tour in history, or an intimate portrait of one of the 21st century’s most successful rock bands; it’s also an infectiously upbeat biography of four blessed friends (five, if you count their manager; six if you count Whitecross himself), who conquered the world on the strength of their belief in themselves and each other. In other words, this feature-length victory lap should be utterly insufferable from start to finish. It isn’t.
At a time when the world feels like it’s resting on the edge of a knife, there’s precious little patience for a movie about handsome nerds who meet in college, get rich and famous in their early 20s, and then steadily continue to get richer and more famous from there. Who wants to pay $15 to watch someone else meet Beyoncé? For diehard fans, watching this was always going to hurt like heaven, but it’s definitely a riskier proposition for the rest of us. When this critic recently celebrated a wave of “nicecore” filmmaking, Coldplay weren’t the ambassadors he had in mind. And yet, perhaps they should have been?
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Instrumental to the film’s success is the fact that Whitecross has known the band since before they were a band. Like “Minding the Gap,” “Shirkers,” and a number of the year’s other standout documentaries, “A Head Full of Dreams” is a movie that was decades in the making — a personal story told via priceless home video footage. Whitecross (who also made “Oasis: Supersonic”) was there at University College London in 1996 when Chris Martin met Jonny Buckland, Guy Berryman, and Will Champion, and he has the embarrassing amateur video to prove it.
He was there when they were palling around the dorms, he was there at the band’s first gig, and he was there when the band got signed to Parlophone. Whitecross was there in 1998, when a starry-eyed Martin looked into the camera and proclaimed that “The Coldplay” would be one of world’s biggest acts in four years’ time, and he was there in 2002, when the band headlined Glastonbury. And the fact that he was there all that time — that Martin and the gang let him be there, even after they blew up and started marrying movie stars — says as much about Coldplay as anything in the movie itself: They care about the people they care about.
Martin has always thought of Coldplay as an extended family, and the music — critics will be vindicated to learn — has never been more important to him than the people he gets to make it with. The lead singer says that he saw the band’s latest (and potentially last) album as a literal expression of everything they’ve always wanted, and so it’s no surprise that the music is euphoric, inclusive, and strewn with the voices of their children and partners (keep your eyes peeled for a split-second Gwyneth cameo).
“A Head Full of Dreams” tends to skirt over any traces of sadness or regret, but Martin was clearly shattered by his decision to boot Champion out of the band in favor of a more skilled drummer. If Champion hadn’t agreed to return, that might have been the end of things. Barring one little tantrum at a low point in Coldplay’s run, every moment of this movie reinforces the idea that Martin would rather be a good person and a mediocre artist than the other way around. Of course, that’s an easier sacrifice to make when you’re selling millions of albums either way, but it still requires a measure of integrity.
Whatever you happen to think about Martin’s unshakable positivity, and all of the publicity that’s resulted from his self-described “hippie nonsense” over the years (no one will forget “conscious uncoupling”), Whitecross’ film reveals an undeniable genuineness of spirit. Such relentlessly enthusiastic types can be hard to stomach, but now there’s evidence that Martin has always been this way. The frontman literally went to college to make friends, and to this day he can’t help it if he comes across as the Jimmy Fallon of a British rock scene defined by the paranoid genius of Thom Yorke and the hooligan theatrics of the Gallagher brothers. His talent for music has always been tempered by his desire to make it with other people, and that’s just the way it is.
Especially after the Champion incident, the unspoken subtext of Whitecross’ film is that the rest of Coldplay might be riding on Martin’s coattails. Check out the bit where he sneaks into the studio when everyone else is home for the weekend and records “The Scientist” in one clean take. Maybe that is the case, and maybe it’s not — we’d need a Frederick Wiseman film about the band’s group meetings to know for sure. But whatever the case, Coldplay depends on a certain democracy; it’s not just how the band works, it’s what the band is. There’s a reason why they open their concerts with an excerpt from Charlie Chaplin’s speech at the end of “The Great Dictator.” Martin doesn’t want to rule or conquer anyone. He just wants to rock. Or, you know, do whatever it is that songs like “Fun” and “Amazing Day” really do.
While “X & Y” is the only Coldplay record that the band badmouths on camera, “A Head Full of Dreams” has the (unintended?) effect of absolving their last few albums. Maybe they’re not great, but greatness doesn’t have to be the only goal. At one point, Martin puts it thus: “If you don’t like it, that’s okay, but I’m having fun, you know what I mean?” The lack of defensiveness in his voice is almost superhuman. And while nothing in your life may come as easily to you as everything in Coldplay’s lives seems to have come to them, this delightful and unexpectedly inspiring documentary has a funny way of making your dreams seem closer than they might appear. “I’ve been blessed with an ability to not give up,” Martin says. He might not be able to share that with the rest of us, but “A Head Full of Dreams” lets him try.
“Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams” is now streaming on Amazon Prime.