The life stories of rock stars and singers have been time and time again resurrected by Hollywood. Over the last few years, Elvis, Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman, to name a few, are biographical movies centred around some of the biggest frontmen in music around the world. They are certainly entertaining, and almost everyone knows their arcs. Stephan Williams’ Chevalier follows the incredible story of the first known Black European composer: Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, played by Kelvin Harrison Jr. The movie explores the titular protagonist’s struggle to find a place among the French royals at a time when Joseph was never fully accepted as one of them. A timeless tale of acceptance and excellence, Chevalier brings forward a forgotten figure who should have been celebrated in the history pages.
Set in 18th-century France, Joseph Bologne, the son of Frenchman George Bolonge, and his slave mistress, Nanon (Ronke Adekoluejo) from Guadalupe, was always destined for greatness. However, he was forced to leave his home and abandoned at a French school, where he faced racism and bullying. Joseph’s father implored that he must be the best, and so he excelled in fencing, riding, violin, and composing. After Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) discovers the celebrated violinist-composer, he earns the title, Chevalier de Saint-Georges and earns a seat at the table alongside the court. Joseph’s ambitions don’t stop there; he wishes to become the next leader of the Paris Opera and takes up the challenge to compose the next play. He enlists the help of the beautiful and talented, Marquise Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving), and they begin an affair. Passion, scandal, betrayal, and success ensue — Joseph’s life is turned upside down at the height of his career.
History has never been kind to people who are talented, especially to someone like Bolonge. Williams’ biographical movie encapsulates the forgotten historical figure’s struggle for equality and acceptance in a society that deems him unwanted. Screenwriter Stefani Robinson allows the audience to glimpse into the life of the violinist-composer with a brief flashback and the looming French Revolution near the film’s conclusion. Chevalier portrays the delicate nature of Joseph’s life and his dual identities. He struggled with finding his roots but was praised for his musical talents. Robinson and Williams spend a lot of time discovering and learning the intricate details of a man whose history was not easy to find, due to the erasure during Napoleon Bonaparte’s rule. Yet they present a counterfactual story of his life and reconstruct his story with an introduction that solidifies his place in history — a violin duel between Joseph and Mozart (Joseph Prowen) in front of an audience and leaves the latter flabbergasted.
To recreate Joseph’s scores, composers, Kris Bowers and Micheal Abels added their own interpretation of what was left of his creations. The reason that the composers had to recreate their own versions is that three years after Joseph’s death, Napoleon reinstated slavery and banned the work of the great composer. His work was lost, rendering the final scores impossible to find. Despite this, Bowers and Abels use string-heavy orchestral scores that elevate the scenes. During the final act’s dramatic climax, Joseph performs ‘Violin Concerto No. 9,’ added with the unforgettable final shot that allows the scene to have a grandiose ending. It’s visually compelling and the score brings light to Joseph’s musical contributions.
Harrison Jr. emerges as the rising star of the opera, playing the role of the musically talented romantic with confidence and temper. He reconstructs the life of the historical figure by understanding the delicate nature of his character’s past, charms, and struggles of a lonely man amongst a world of royals. Harrison is one of the most excellent actors of this generation, proving that he can perform this role by showing the soft and rough edges of Joseph’s life.
Chevalier spends a great deal of time showing the composer’s struggle with dual identities, leaving the final act rushed and barely shows him reconnecting with his roots. The future of Joseph is left for the audience to speculate, even though the movie is a fictitious inspiration and a celebration of the great musical talent, with a history lesson that audiences will not forget. Williams attempts to explore the compelling and challenging life of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges — a history lesson and a rare portrait of a man that changed the royal courts of 18th-century France.