Twenty years into their career, the members of Coldplay take stock of their musical journey in this documentary, impressively assembled by Mat Whitecross, the man who so brilliantly charted the rise of Oasis in Supersonic.
The fact that the director befriended the band back in 1996, before they had even settled on a name or made any recordings, means he was ideally placed to essay their leap from dingy Camden dives to the biggest venues in the world. And throughout it all, he’s accorded the privileged view of an insider.
Following the template of Supersonic, Whitecross tells the story using solely archive footage, incorporating everything from home videos, TV appearances, video shoots and live shows. Adding their voiceover contributions are singer Chris Martin, bass player Guy Berryman, guitarist Jonny Buckland and drummer Will Champion among others.
It was Martin, Berryman and Buckland who formed the group while studying at University College London, with Champion eventually filling the drummer’s stool by default rather than design (apparently the other guy didn’t show up). Rough video footage of the skinny, spotty foursome larking about in dorms could be any japesterish bunch of students. However, Martin’s self-belief and drive is clear even in those days. In June 1998, following an early gig performed as The Coldplay, Martin addresses the camera, saying that in four years the band will be huge. Somehow, this doesn’t even come across like Gallagher brothers-level bravado; it’s more a statement of intent. And sure enough, click forward in time to 2002 and the band are headlining Glastonbury. You’d think the band’s meteoric success was written in the stars, but the reality was more down to hard graft.
Not that there haven’t been blips along the way. Coldplay’s first stab at breaking America was particularly disastrous, with the band playing to bored festival audiences and Martin having a CD chucked in his face during a radio broadcast (not caught on camera, alas, but one suspects Whitecross tried his best). The most turbulent chapter in their history saw Champion kicked out following the breakthrough success of the band’s 2000 album Parachutes. But like everything else in this story, the rifts were quickly healed and fraternal bonds restored, making the quartet stronger than ever before.
Coldplay’s is not a story filled with sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll – something of a novelty in the cliché-filled catalogue of music docs. These are four middle-class men from the right side of the tracks, with grounded upbringings and all the advantages of a college education. They’re not working through childhood traumas or out to smash the system, and there’s little evidence here of celebrity excess or diva-like behaviour to spice up proceedings.
If anything, Whitecross keeps a respectful distance from the band’s private lives, perhaps owing to their mutual long-term association. It’s most noticeable during the scenes covering Martin’s marriage to and break-up from Gwyneth Paltrow, which is glossed over and dealt with in a matter of minutes. It’s at junctures such as these that the film reveals itself to be far from a warts-and-all exposé, maybe just the odd blemish with some carefully applied concealer.
The focus instead falls on the music, and it’s in the recording studio and on stage where these four rather ordinary blokes function as an extraordinary whole. And it’s also where Whitecross’s film really reaches out to the fans.
Martin’s earliest musical foray as keyboard player in school band the Rockin’ Honkies provides a few titters, but also serves to illustrate his long friendship with Phil Harvey, who played alongside him then and would go on to become Coldplay’s first manager and official fifth member.
Also caught for posterity is Coldplay’s first gig in January 1998, when they went by the name of Starfish. The band claim they were nervous as hell, but Martin looks in his element.
Despite the film’s democratic intentions, it’s hardly surprising that the singer emerges as its dominant personality. Martin is a human pogo-stick of energy, radiating positive vibes that irk or inspire depending on your temperament. But for all his talent and charm, it is gratifying that we get to glimpse a less affable side of the golden boy. Martin’s perfectionist streak is joked about, but, as the film reveals, it was also the reason he was excluded from certain sessions during the recording of the band’s 2008 album Viva La Vida, at the request of producer Brian Eno.
Elsewhere, familiar songs are revealed in unfamiliar ways. Beyoncé laying down her guest vocals for Hymn for the Weekend in the cluttered chaos of one of Martin’s kids’ bedrooms is not how you expect million-sellers to be minted, while a simple piano work-through of The Scientist is guaranteed to bring out goosebumps. Meanwhile, the songs captured on the band’s 2015 A Head Full of Dreams Tour have all the scale of an Olympics opening ceremony – Paradise being accompanied by an explosion of fireworks, ticker-tape, balloons and streamers. (To savour the live experience in full, the Buenos Aires and Sao Paulo dates are set to receive a release on album and DVD alongside this documentary in December.)
Energetic concert footage, shot in stadiums all around the world, is interweaved throughout a story whose chronology ping-pongs back and forward in time without ever losing sight on where its headed. Although there’s not time to stuff in all of the band’s greatest hits, we’re given plenty of highlights from their seven studio albums. You’ll be heading back to the albums to fill in the gaps afterwards.
Fans may be perturbed to hear the band calling this “the end of an era”, but does Coldplay have anything left to prove? In the early days, Martin kept a check list for success, but all the items on it have long since been ticked off. The band have notched up 100 million record sales, won nine Brit awards and sold out their latest, 18-month, globe-spanning tour. They’ve reached the summit of the mountain. “I’m just looking forward to what happens next,” says Will Champion. And one suspects that feeling is shared by everyone watching this celebratory summation of the band’s first two decades.
Coldplay: a Head Full of Dreams is released in cinemas on Wednesday 14 November before premiering on Amazon Prime on the Friday.