Critic's Notebook: Beyoncé Steals the Spotlight as Coldplay Leads a Solid Super Bowl Halftime

Coldplay Performs "Adventure of a Lifetime"

Coldplay returned to the American Music Awards stage for the first time in seven years for a colorful, energetic performance.

Pepsi and the NFL set Coldplay up for failure during Sunday night's Super Bowl 50 halftime show.

To begin with, they're Coldplay. Nobody's going to try saying that Coldplay isn't one of the biggest rock acts in the world, but when you think of the best Super Bowl halftime shows, you think of either high-energy greatest hits excitement, Janet Jackson's nipple or a wayward shark, while when you think of Coldplay, chances are good that you think of mournful montages set to "Fix You."

Then, as people were making jokes about what a sleepy affair a Coldplay halftime would probably be, news broke that Beyoncé and Bruno Mars would be guesting and suddenly if your world resembles Twitter, all anybody wanted was Beyoncé to do her second tour of halftime duty, pushing Coldplay out entirely or rendering them a really glorified backing group.

So guess what happened?

Beyoncé and Bruno Mars absolutely upstaged Coldplay and stole a lot of the buzz from their halftime collaboration, but that's selling what Coldplay did wildly short. The total number of performers who wouldn't be upstaged by Beyoncé at this moment can be counted on one finger. Her name is Adele and maybe somebody will pitch a strategy to let a silver-lunged balladeer attempt to make this show her own next year. Maybe Adele with a cameo from Beyoncé

Even no doubt aware that they were being pushed forward as an overpriced opening act, Coldplay did exactly what was required of them. They stirred the crowd, they raised the stadium volume and then they stepped back to let Beyoncé and Bruno Mars tear the roof off. 

Chris Martin began the show on his knees on the field as his bandmates performed the intro to "Yellow." A sea of kids rushed by him as Martin smiled, relieved clearly that nobody wanted to be the little moron slapping the lead singer of Coldplay on the back of his head. Martin took the stage and began singing to "Viva La Vida," but even then, this attentions were on connecting with the screaming audience surrounding the stage and he absolutely seemed to be connecting.

The danger of a West Coast Super Bowl is that the halftime show will usually take place in broad daylight and there's no doubt that missing out on lasers and elaborate projection effects cost Coldplay, a group that thrives on an expansive arena aesthetic. Instead, Coldplay and the producers compensated with bursts of color, including kaleidoscopic flows and somewhat hollow echoes of Indian imagery. Around the stage, there were more flowers, mounted on extras practically glowing green, and rhythmic gymnasts and other gestures to keep things busy on the field through "Paradise" and "Adventure of a Lifetime."

With the arrival of Mark Ronson, Bruno Mars and a posse of leather-encased dancers excitement absolutely built with "Uptown Funk," but if we're making fun of Coldplay as a drowsy opener — they weren't — it's only fair to say that even Bruno Mars fades into the background when Queen Bee enters. It was probably a smart move for Beyoncé to debut "Formation," her new single, on Saturday, rather than expecting the entire audience to instantly engage with an unheard song, but it hardly would have mattered. Stage? Beyoncé didn't need any stinking stage, as she led her troops, an army of similarly attired women, across the playing field, flames touting behind her. The field that the announcers insisted was causing issues for the cleat-wearing professional athletes was no obstacle for a group of women in heels. Forming X's and an arrow with Beyoncé at the point, the Beyoncé faction and the Bruno Mars gang met on the stage. (After the assured prowl across the stage, Beyoncé nearly slipped, but we'll cut her some slack.)

For a period, Coldplay definitely faded into the background and it was possible to wonder if they'd left entirely and then it was possible to chide Martin as he tried pushing himself into a Beyoncé/Mars duet. It seemed like Martin and company might be pushed into becoming a punchline, but a musical pivot brought in a remixed version of "Fix You" as the Super Bowl musical performance paid tribute to, well, musical performances at the Super Bowl, including solemn nods to departed stars like Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston and Clarence Clemons. The halftime show needed Coldplay there to sell the earnest nostalgia and sell it they did.

The show ended with Martin backed by Beyoncé and Bruno Mars on "Up&Up" from Coldplay's new album.

I'm sure we're supposed to make fun of how square and lame Coldplay was at halftime Sunday night, but that feels silly to me. Was the high point of the halftime show Beyoncé's on-turf arrival, followed by "Uptown Funk"? Absolutely. But it would be wrong to detract from both the table-setting duty Coldplay provided and how their soaring sound allowed for a touching dose of Super Bowl 50 flashing-back. That was a good and memorable halftime show and Coldplay was a fine and important part of it.