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When Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, died in Paris in 1799, his friend — J.S.A. Cuvelier — wrote an affectionate obituary about him in an arts newspaper. He called Saint-Georges “the most amazing of his century by the variety and superiority of his talents.” He sprinkled adjectives like “generous,” “gallant,” “witty” and “sensitive” throughout. There was little that Saint-Georges, the child of a white Frenchman and his Guadalupian slave mistress, could not do: He was a devoted friend, a champion of the people, a skilled fencer, a dancer, an intellectual and, perhaps most famously, a brilliant composer.
You might know Saint-Georges as the Black Mozart, an inaccurate shorthand that emerged with the revival of his legacy years ago. But the master of violin concertos was much more than the shadow of his white contemporaries, a sentiment underscored in Stephen Williams’ ebullient but tottering biopic Chevalier. The film, which stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. (Waves) as the titular French nobleman, lifts Saint-Georges from the annals of music history and transforms him into a rockstar — a classical Jimi Hendrix, if you will.
Shaped by Williams’ sleek direction and Stefani Robinson’s eclectic screenplay, the composer’s life adopts an energetic and apocryphal sheen. This isn’t the project dutiful historians or accuracy czars have been waiting for, but its glossy finish and accessible narrative will convert novices of this fascinating slice of classical musical history.
A zealous violin battle introduces us to Saint-Georges (an arresting Harrison). He emerges from the shadows of a concert hall, where a young Mozart (Joseph Prowen) has asked his audience for song requests. The Black composer saunters to the pit in mock deference: Would Mozart, he asks, allow him to play alongside him? The initially amicable duet morphs into an arrogant face off, a competition of bowing and plucking string instruments and jagged body movement. Saint-Georges woos the enraptured crowd of Parisian nobility and leaves Mozart in the dust.
That charming opening leads the way into a brief origin story. Chevalier nimbly establishes how Saint-Georges rose through the ranks of the French court, developed his musical talents and shaped his effervescent personality. He was born Joseph Bologne in 1745 to George (Jim Hight), a Frenchman, and his slave mistress, Nanon (a wasted Ronke Adekoluejo), in Guadalupe. When Joseph was 8 years-old, George sent him to France for schooling, separating him from his mother and the island life he was only just beginning to understand. According to historians, particularly American violinist Gabriel Banat’s biography The Chevalier de Saint-Georges: Virtuoso of the Sword and the Boy, mother and son were soon reunited when George later moved Nanon to France. And although Joseph initially faced racism at school, he quickly charmed his classmates and ascended socially.
Williams’ film takes a slightly different route, depicting a young Joseph bullied by his peers, encouraged by his father to always be the best and separated from his mother until his adult years. Chevalier zips forward again — editor John Axelrad’s transitions are crisp and Kris Bowers’ score grandiose — to Joseph defeating his opponent in a duel for the entertainment of Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton). He’s rewarded with the title Saint-Georges de Chevalier, which comes with an increased profile and access to Parisian nobility.
The bulk of Chevalier takes place during a stretch of years when Saint-Georges was considered for the conductor role at the Paris opera (the most prestigious position) and began participating in revolutionary efforts. The film stages this potential appointment as a competition between him and Christopher Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes). Not one to back down from a challenge, Saint-Georges plunges himself into writing his opera Ernestine, a devastating romance. He casts a singer (Samara Weaving) he stumbled upon at a royal party and becomes obsessed with her. The two start an affair that not only threatens to ruin Saint-Georges’ life, but Chevalier as well.
Romance is a tricky turn in biopics about figures almost lost to history. Like Emily, another Toronto entry, Chevalier subtly pins the drive of its genius to a perilous love affair. Perhaps this an attempt at universality, a bid to win audience affection. But after a gutsy buildup, the love story is mostly predictable and a bore.
It also wastes other performances — most disappointingly Adekoluejo, who plays Saint-Georges’ mother. After the death of George, the patriarch, Nanon arrives at her son’s doorstep ready to make a life in Paris. But her character never quite develops into someone worth caring about; she is a proxy for her son’s cultural re-education, the person who introduces him to a different, more Black side of Paris.
The latter half of Chevalier obediently fills the holes of its familiar puzzle. The cast — a wonderful bunch — sustain our interest with their congenial performances. Harrison is especially spry as he balances Saint-Georges’ confidence, jovial comportment and rumored temper. His command of the character’s complexities (even when his accent is shaky) confirms the performer can shoulder the responsibilities of a lead role.
Even so, the journey to the end of Chevalier feels like a race to wrap up the narrative threads introduced and shovel in more of the composer’s history. When we breathlessly arrive at the finish line, Chevalier regains some of the energy from the beginning. Glimmers of the conductor’s rebellious streak, the “precious qualities of the heart” of which his friend, Cuvelier, spoke so fondly come through in a righteous final sequence. As the credits roll, supplying more information, one can’t help but bristle at the fact that this is the first attempt to depict such a magnetic soul. Let’s hope it’s not the last.
Distributor: Searchlight Pictures
Production company: Element Pictures
Cast: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Samara Weaving, Lucy Boynton, Ronke Adekoluejo, Marton Csokas, Alex Fitzalan, Minnie Driver
Director: Stephen Williams
Screenwriter: Stefani Robinson
Producers: Ed Guiney, Andrew Lowe, Stefani Robinson, Dianne McGunigle
Executive producers: Peter Oberth
Cinematographer: Jess Hall
Production designer: Karen Murphy
Costume designer: Oliver Garcia
Editor: John Axelrad
Composer: Kris Bowers
Casting directors: Kharmel Cochrane, Dominika Eckertova, Maya Kvetny, Yesi Ramirez
Rated PG-13, 1 hour 47 minutes
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