Coldplay Documentary 'A Head Full of Dreams' Takes In-Depth Look at the Band's Two Decades of Successes and Struggles

James Marcus Haney
Coldplay

Since the formation of Coldplay, director and longtime group friend Mat Whitecross has continually nudged its members on the idea of creating a film detailing the longstanding band’s journey.

Two decades later, patience has proved to be a virtue for the 41-year-old filmmaker, with the new A Head Full of Dreams documentary hitting 2,000 select theaters in collaboration with Trafalgar Releasing on Wednesday (Nov. 14). Following its premiere, the film will head exclusively to Amazon Prime Video, available for streaming beginning Friday (Nov. 16). 

Titled after the band’s 2015 album, the feature-length film celebrates 20 years of Coldplay, weaving the band’s path to prolonged stardom between clips of rambunctious crowds from around the world, taken during the group’s A Head Full of Dreams Tour. The supporting album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and boasted the hit single “Adventure of a Lifetime,” which peaked at No. 13 on the Hot 100.

The vibrant documentary quickly showcases the type of cultural event that a Coldplay concert has become over the years, with a sea of red wristbands dancing along to the album’s title track on a November night in São Paulo. After cutting to a heartwarming behind-the-scenes studio look mid-song, it’s almost hard not to join in singing the final bridge as frontman Chris Martin leads the crowd.

"We now get to do what we always dreamed of -- playing music to millions of people all around the world," the group's creative director (and former manager) Phil Harvey tells Billboard. "The moment when the wristbands switch on at the top of the show and suddenly people are transported into a different world [is the most rewarding feeling.]"

Head Full of Dreams then delves into what almost feels like an extended episode of The Office at many points: a quip-riddled work environment that experiences highs and lows, but ultimately maintains a jovial atmosphere through it all. Appropriately, the band members clearly have an awareness of a rolling camera, breaking the fourth wall for an occasional glance or brief monologue -- though its presence quickly fades, with the frequent videographer Whitecross instead serving as “a fly on the wall for a long time." Much of the project is led by backing audio commentary from the band members themselves, giving direct insight into the footage unfolding in front of viewers’ eyes.

Some of that footage almost feels too prophetic to believe. Early in the film, a braces-clad Martin circa 1998 gets up close and personal to the camera, predicting national fame for Coldplay just one day after one of the band’s worst gigs of all time, according to Whitecross. "We are going to go on to be such a huge band," says Martin. "This will be on national television within four years. Four years." Framed as a half-joking exaggeration, the singer lets his youthful exuberance slip, as he takes a full leap, arms outstretched, after making the prediction. Immediately cut to four years and three days later, the documentary shows Coldplay headlining Glastonbury Festival.

For as many emotionally uplifting scenes as the documentary possesses, many of the film’s most powerful moments are its most poignant. One in particular depicts Harvey’s departure as the band’s manager, citing the deterioration of his friendship with Martin -- one that has existed since grade school -- as a main reason, though it doesn’t give specifics.

“When ‘Yellow’ became a hit, it sent me down a spiral of anxiety. I just felt overwhelmed and out of my depth,” elaborates Harvey to Billboard. “I failed to deal with the shift in Chris and I’s relationship. We went from being two best friends with a shared dream to a fully fledged rock star and manager. That’s a very different dynamic and I wasn’t mature enough to adapt. [When I left], Chris understandably felt pretty let down, and we didn’t talk much for the next three years.”

Another segment of the film details Coldplay dealing with backlash both internally and on a national level. A glimpse into a tense lyric-writing session shifts to Martin, lying on a stage during a soundcheck, despondently asking, “Why did they write that about us in The New York Times?,” referring to a 2005 write-up. “I’m depressed because The New York Times hate us,” he continues, letting out a whimper of a laugh.

The brief parting with original member Will Champion in 1999 -- chiefly due to concerns about his inexperience -- gets in-depth airtime during Head Full of Dreams, with powerful shots of the band’s drummer looking seemingly out of place really driving the portion home. With cameras still rolling during those difficult situations, Whitecross explains the ethical dilemma going through a director’s mind.

“Documentaries do a weird thing to your brain. Fifty percent of you is hopefully a decent individual who wants the best for people,” he says. “And there’s another 50 percent of your brain that’s horrific and is hoping that things go wrong [and you are] thinking, 'This is dynamite. I’m so glad we’re getting this shot.' I’ve definitely had that with the band.”

Head Full of Dreams isn’t Whitecross’ first go at directing -- he notably directed 2016's Oasis: Supersonic as well, giving an inside look at the relationship between the Gallagher brothers. Still, it's undoubtedly his most personal effort: The director has been friends with the band since before it even became one, befriending the members at University College London in 1996. He fondly looks back on times when Martin would call him into a private room to get feedback on a song idea.

"I was blown away by it, and I remember him asking straight after, 'So, what do you think?' And I was like, 'Oh, it was amazing!' I couldn’t believe he’d written it. His immediate reaction was the same one he has given ever since: '[Sighs.] Shit. Shit. I’m talentless, I need to give up.' ”

As such, Whitecross admits that it’s not an entirely objective film, but simultaneously argues that documentaries can't ever really be objective, anyway. “It wasn’t really until I started that I realized as soon as you put a camera in a room, or as soon as you beginning editing two pieces of footage, you’re telling a story,” he says. “It’s not what happened anymore; it’s your version of the events.”

As Coldplay’s current manager Dave Holmes points out, the timeline depicted in the film doesn’t cover everything, leaving out the band’s list of Grammy wins, for example. However, given the 1,000 hours of footage on the shelves and the original seven-hour cut, all parties involved understand that such a lengthy tribute may have gotten bogged down in the weeds.

“The moment any footage stopped serving a purpose -- telling part of the story and illustrating a certain dynamic -- then we cut it,” Harvey says. “Mat always felt that he wanted to make a more personal film that followed the highs and lows of five friends who formed a band.”

The biggest remaining question following the documentary is why now? With the band's future currently shrouded in uncertainty, Whitecross, Holmes and Harvey all sidestep the question a bit, giving various answers about the timing just lining up in the right places. Much buzz has circulated about A Head Full of Dreams being Coldplay’s final album, and it feels like this may be an all-encompassing tribute the band wanted to wait to release until it felt its own run was complete.

Still, much is in question: Whitecross says that Martin still hasn’t watched Dreams yet. "I think they kind of felt like [the album] A Head Full of Dreams was a closing chapter on a certain part of their lives," Whitecross says. "That album felt like a culmination of things Chris has had in his head from quite early on. I don’t know what they’re planning next. I suppose in that sense, he was willing to at least talk about the part, even though he was not willing to watch the film." 

Perhaps Martin's not ready to look at Coldplay in the past tense just yet.

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