At the start of the new documentary Coldplay: A Head Full of Dreams, director Mat Whitecross plays a recording of a telephone conversation between him and the band’s front person, Chris Martin. Whitecross asks Martin if he’s watched the edit of the film that he sent over. Martin replies he hasn’t and isn’t going to, because he’d probably just tell Whitecross to cut out all the parts with him in it.
Over their extraordinarily successful career, Coldplay in general and Martin in particular have gotten the reputation for being … sensitive. A Head Full of Dreams (which shares its name with the group’s 2016 album) doesn’t dispel this notion. There’s footage of Martin laying on the stage at soundcheck, distraught over the New York Times’ 2005 lashing that called them “the most insufferable band of the decade.” But there’s also plenty of footage of their boundless ambition and dogged determination, even back when Martin sported braces and a mop of curly hair.
Whitecross had lots of material to draw from for A Head Full of Dreams, which was released through Amazon Prime last Friday. He met the group’s eventual four members shortly after they all arrived as first-year students at University College London. Whitecross came to school wanting to be a filmmaker, they wanted to be in a band. Whitecross has since made films including the political documentaries The Road to Guantanamo and The Shock Doctrine. Coldplay has sold over 77 million albums and still play stadiums around the world. Whitecross has been filming the group for over 20 years now, from their first club gigs to their most recent tour, as well as capturing their recording process and directing several music videos.
A Head Full of Dreams comes after Whitecross’s fantastic 2016 film, Oasis: Supersonic. That documentary ends with the Manchester band’s two shows at Knebworth Park in August of 1996, which combined sold over a quarter-million tickets. Brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher rumbled on for another decade, but those shows were the pinnacle of their success. The members of Coldplay met each other a month later. Whitecross’s two movies work together as companion pieces about the biggest English rock bands of the past 25 years. Vulture spoke with the director about what the two groups have in common and why A Head Full of Dreams almost didn’t happen.
You’ve been filming the members of Coldplay for over 20 years, how did you decide that it was finally the right time to put it all together in a documentary?
I thought it was the right time pretty much about a year after I met them. And then a year after that. And then a year after that. And every year, or maybe every couple years, I asked the guys [about making the film], and they were like, “No, no, no.”
I remember having a chat with Chris at one point, and I was like, “We’re gonna make the film eventually, right?” And he was like, “If I’m being honest, I just think we can’t have a film like this made about us until we’re sitting in rocking chairs on the porch somewhere. I don’t really want a film about us to be made, to be honest.” I was a little bit crestfallen.
I knew we’d keep on filming stuff, but I thought the documentary [was] not going to happen. But Phil [Harvey, the band’s original manager who is now called their “fifth member”] rang me and I was in the middle of trying to finish up the last few bits of Supersonic. Phil said, “Do you want to come out to L.A.? We’ve got a gig on. We’re doing a livestream, you can direct that.”
On my downtime I was still editing on Supersonic. I had my laptop out with me. Chris was looking over my shoulder and he goes, “What’s this?” And one of the financers happened to come to the thing and he said, “Oh, we’ll put it on the screen for you.” So the next night, they put it on the screen. It wasn’t even finished. I didn’t know what the hell was going on. I was desperately trying to connect it to the projector and nothing was working and the band was walking in. One of the other producers was like, “I’ll invite my friend Paul so it’s not weird, so it’s not like an audition or something.” And of course his friend is Paul Thomas Anderson, so I was getting ten times more freaked out. But it was lovely. We screened the film for them and they loved it.
Then Phil came over at the end, slightly sheepishly — “Maybe it’s time to do our film. I need to convince Chris. The thing is, the band has this thing about themselves, they don’t really want to look back, they want to look forward. I know you’ve got footage, I just don’t know whether they’ll be that comfortable with it. I know you’ve got stuff that’s never been seen. Why don’t you send me some of the stuff you think is really goofy and embarrassing and geeky and that’s really gonna put them off. Show me the worst stuff, and we can work our way back from there.” So I sent him a couple clips of the band at their youngest and spottiest and gawkiest. He rang me up straight away and he’s like, “Thank God you sent me this stuff. Can you please burn those tapes? Set fire to them. I’m never going to allow that to be in the film.”
A week later, Phil was watching one of the clips by himself in the corner, backstage probably, and Chris came up to him and asked, “What are you watching?” He clocks it and he’s like, “Oh my God, this stuff is great! Where’d you get this from?”
Obviously part of Phil’s job is to kind of protect the band and filter things. He realized maybe enough time’s passed that they can start looking back. It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. There were a few times along the way in the last two years [when] I was pretty sure the plug was going to get pulled.
Was there a concern that a retrospective documentary might seem like a signal to the world that this was the end of the group?
The only person who really worries about this stuff is Chris. Chris is super attuned to those kind of things and senses those kind of things, and is probably a little bit suspicious. I think in his mind, for sure, as soon as you make a band documentary, that’s the end of the band. Which obviously isn’t always true. It took a little bit of time, psychologically, for him to get over that. Then the only way he really reconciled himself to it is that he just said, “I’m going to step back. I’m not even going to watch the rushes. I will have no connection to this film. You make the film you want to make.”
At first, I was a little bit hurt by it because I felt like, “Oh fuck, does he not think I’m going to make a good film?” But I don’t think it was that. It was more that he doesn’t want to feel self-conscious about himself and he would rather that other people who he trusts got on with this on his behalf.
So has he still has not seen it?
No, he hasn’t seen it. And he claims that he’s never going to see it. Maybe one day he’ll crack, you never know. But his family’s seen it. Phil’s seen it, obviously, and Dave’s [Dave Holmes, the band’s current manager] seen it, and the rest of the band’s seen it.
The funny thing for me was that Phil was super focused on the trailer. He’s spending hours and days pulling it apart, sending me like ten pages of notes on the trailer. I don’t mind. I don’t consider the trailer a work of art in the same way that a film that I work on is. So we changed it around a hundred times. I remember saying, “Phil, it’s lovely you’re doing this, but why do you care?” He was like, “This is the only thing that Chris is gonna see. I want him to be happy with it, so I just want it to be the best it can be.”
In the beginning of A Head Full of Dreams, the band’s talking about their arguments, but then you show them just passive-aggressively fighting about the latest album’s track list. It sounds like they had bigger problems during other stages of their career, but that’s a big difference from what’s in Supersonic where Noel [Gallagher, of Oasis] is hitting Liam [Gallagher] in the head with a cricket bat.
Physical violence is a whole ’nother level, and I think brothers can always take it up a notch. They’re obviously very different bands and different personalities, although I should say one unifying thing is their drive. Whatever anyone thinks of Oasis, whatever anyone thinks of Coldplay, those guys work their tits off. And you know you can see it in the early days of Oasis. Noel drummed it into them like a drill sergeant. Every day they were in there rehearsing. And Chris is the same thing. They all work obsessively.
The other thing is that they’re very, very funny. Maybe people knew it about Oasis, but then people might have forgotten. They got portrayed sometimes as being quite laddish and humorless. Coldplay is sometimes characterized as being a bit dull. I think the opposite is true, Chris is one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.
It’s interesting with the two bands, because you can tell they each wanted to be the biggest band in the world, but they had really fundamental differences about how they went about achieving that goal.
There were a lot of bands who were their contemporaries, or maybe slightly before, who were embarrassed by the idea of wanting to be U2. But you don’t become U2 by not wanting to become U2. You have to really thirst for it and go after it. I think Oasis did, but then they really weren’t into doing any of the things you’re supposed to do if you want to take over the States and take over the world. You have to shake people’s hands and be nice to people, and it wasn’t really part of their DNA.
It also feels like the reason Coldplay could push it further than Oasis did is that they think more globally in terms of their outlook on the world and their outlook on their music. It seems like Oasis was a lot more interested in Manchester United and going to the pub.
I think some bands feel a tad bit immature. I think with Coldplay, the opposite [is true]. My family background is Argentinian. I was so excited when [Coldplay] started touring South America. I remember them going over there and I followed them on the Viva [la Vida] tour, followed them around to Mexico and Argentina. It was amazing. It was really … this is a different phenomenon over here. It’s like a happening, it’s a spiritual event. You see people in tears over the first notes.
We have a kind of chip on our shoulder in England. We’re quite a cynical country in some ways, and quite emotionally uptight. It’s far less [that way] than when my dad was growing up, or even 20 years ago. I remember I came back from Argentina to London, I’d spent a year traveling around South America. I’d go up to people and if I met them, I’d hug them and kiss their cheeks, women and men. I had to tone it down. I was in social paralysis. I was convinced people were flinching and pulling back. Now it’s much more normal. I’m starting to see in Europe, the thinking has just changed gradually. [Coldplay] get criticized over here for their being sentimental, but I don’t buy that. I feel like they’re emotional in a way that’s uncomfortable to some people.
Some of your earlier films were political documentaries, is that something you’re interested in going back to?
[A Head Full of Dreams] is something that I really, really wanted to do for a very long time. After Supersonic, even though it was a really great experience working on it, I was like, I definitely don’t want to do a music documentary for a really long time. I only came to [Supersonic] by chance. I was supposed to be doing a completely different film and then it fell apart. [Supersonic] landed in my lap when my wife and I were expecting our first daughter. It was great, this was a film which I can edit in my own front room. But I didn’t want to do another music documentary, and just at that point Phil and the band were like, “Okay, now we’re ready.” It was a dream come true, but also bad timing psychologically for me.
We’ll see what happens. I will say this — by the nature of being in that world, the same team who produced Supersonic, they asked me to do a drama about the life of Brian Epstein and the Beatles. It’s like, ah, fuck, you can’t turn down the Beatles. So one more. And then there’s another huge, huge, huge band — I’m not saying who because I signed all these terrifying documents, so I can’t talk about it — but they asked me potentially to do something as well. So one last one.
This interview has been edited and condensed.