The golden age of the rock documentary faded out a long time ago. It’s now rare to see a concert film or a backstage pop portrait that attains the status of an event, like “Woodstock” or “Stop Making Sense” or “Truth or Dare.” But the form has never gone away. In a sense, it’s now everywhere: on streaming services and music channels, folded into album packages, a perpetual deluge of performance and home-movie snapshot geared to the insatiability of fans. In that light, the relevant question for any rock doc is whether it’s a compelling slice of artistry or a glorified piece of marketing.
“Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams,” which played one night in theaters in 70 nations, where it grossed $3.5 million, and is now available on Amazon Prime, walks the line between those two possibilities. The film takes its title from Coldplay’s most recent album, released at the end of 2015, but it’s not one of those lazy fly-on-the-wall promotional docs where we mostly see the band sitting around the studio creating that one record. The director, Mat Whitecross, has been a friend and associate of Coldplay’s since the group was formed, in 1996, and he’s been filming them ever since. “A Head Full of Dreams” interpolates pre-fame, on-the-road, and in-the-studio clips of Coldplay, most of them in black-and-white, going back to the days when Chris Martin was a scrawny, spotty 19-year-old college kid in braces — though as you can see, he had dreams of filling stadiums (always voiced with a crafty touch of tongue-in-cheekiness) even then.
All of that is interspersed with relatively brief scenes of the band performing in front of massive adoring crowds in stadiums from São Paulo to Los Angeles. The shows are surging explosions of light and color, the stage bathed in flower petals, with Martin, his T-shirt flying up over his torso, leaping and dashing down the runway-into-the-crowd like the Pied Piper of Love crossed with Bono crossed with Springsteen (whom he resembles when he smiles). In just over 90 minutes, “A Head Full of Dreams” delivers a kaleidoscopic version of the Coldplay story and the Coldplay experience.
Yet even if you’re a fan of the band (which I am), the movie may leave you wanting. It’s such a meticulously controlled “celebration” that there are few ups and downs to it; it all comes at you on the same unvarying level. We never really sink into the process of seeing the group’s members — lead guitarist Jonny Buckland, drummer Will Champion, bassist Guy Berryman, and Martin — create one of their hits. And the live snippets are truncated enough that there isn’t a single big transcendent concert number where the movie simply sits back and lets us revel in the majesty of Coldplay going into one of their slow-build trance-out anthems. “A Head Full of Dreams” tells you a lot about Coldplay, yet it plays as an elongated teaser. Which may be the point.
The film’s upbeat samey-same tone traces back to Chris Martin’s singular place in the band. It’s no accident that so many fabled rock ensembles have had two contrasting leaders (Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Plant and Page, Bono and The Edge) to play off each other and cross-pollinate and, at times, butt heads. But Chris Martin completely dominates Coldplay; there’s no yin to his smiley enraptured yang. He’s the rock-king superstar the other band members all worship, humbly, as the genius who made their fates possible, and almost every moment of the band’s creative energy is organized around what Chris is going to do next: the piano chords he’s playing around with, the lyrics he’s writing, his endless studio perfectionism.
It’s the sort of situation you might imagine would breed resentment, but part of the Coldplay mystique is the relative low wattage of ego clash. It’s all part of Martin’s flower-child vision — that the group is spreading love, with their music and even among the band of brothers they’ve become. Martin is fond of aphorisms like “Music is just everywhere. The whole universe is music” and “It was a challenging period. It was a sort of journey from ultimate loneliness to ultimate togetherness.” You get the feeling he’s actually a spiky, funny guy, but he knows how to be a walking publicist for good vibes. At times he’s quite witty. During the video shoot for “Yellow,” in 2000, Martin looks at the camera and says, “Four chords and now all this.” Given the rather elemental nature of their songs, those words more or less summarize Coldplay’s entire career.
Of course, “A Head Full of Dreams” has been constructed to leave out the discord (at one point Martin turns to Whitecross’s camera and says, “You don’t film any of the arguments”). Even so, there’s no denying that Coldplay, as a band, has had a remarkably happy and seamless existence. It’s there in the steadiness of their 20-year rise, and in the delectable ice-cream smoothness of their hooks and harmonies — the way they achieve an epic caress of emotion. By the time their chief role models, U2 and R.E.M., had been around for a couple of decades, they were battle-scarred, and each band had reinvented itself a few times, but the closest Coldplay comes to that in “A Head Full of Dreams” is going through a vague “dark period” after Phil Harvey, the band’s creative director and unofficial fifth member, cuts out. They recover by recruiting the legendary Brian Eno to produce their fourth album, “Viva la Vida” (2008), the title track of which is probably, along with “Fix You,” their greatest song.
The one other dicey moment, apart from Chris Martin’s divorce, comes when the rock press turns on Coldplay — not for the usual reasons (because the band has hit a bad patch) but for their success. The hipster grumbling had been out there for a while, then came to a head in a 2005 New York Times analysis entitled “The Case Against Coldplay,” in which the critic Jon Pareles slammed them as “the most insufferable band of the decade.” It was a startling thing to read, given that Pareles isn’t exactly a writer given to throwing the tomahawk. But what it came down to is that the rock-critic establishment was increasingly possessed by the distinction between what was cool and what was not, and Coldplay, with their heart-on-the-sleeve operatic earnestness, was now seen as the quintessence of uncool.
In “A Head Full of Dreams,” we see the band, at the time, doing their best to laugh this off, but it’s clear they were wounded. You might say that they had the last laugh. They still rule the stadium (they’re a bigger band than they were in 2005), and in the post-Lady Gaga world, the music critics of The New York Times, who may once have been guilty of “rockism,” now twist themselves into pretzels to praise the latest pop. Yet the case against Coldplay was right about one thing: Coldplay, though they have a sexy rock god of a lead singer, will never be cool. They’re too busy doing all they can to melt you.