The life-story of Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, is a marvel. The first European composer of African descent, he was born in 1745 in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy French planter and an enslaved teenage Senegalese girl, Nanon. At seven, he was taken to France for his education. Trained in swordplay, dancing and horsemanship, he was acclaimed by the age of 15 as the best fencer in France. In 1761, Louis XV made him Chevalier and gendarme du Roi.
Within a few years, he had distinguished himself even more as a violinist, conductor and composer. His orchestra commissioned and premiered Haydn’s Paris symphonies; he was admired by Marie Antoinette and performed sonatas with her. In 1776, he was the obvious choice to direct the Paris Opera, but three of its leading ladies petitioned that they could not take orders from a “mulatto”. Gluck was appointed instead.
The Chevalier was also involved in revolutionary politics, through his friendship with the Duke of Orléans, later Philippe Égalité, travelling twice to England on secret missions. In the French Revolution, he led a cavalry unit of volunteers of African descent, known as the Légion St-Georges, but was dismissed and arrested in the Terror, dying in 1799.
Such a career! And one so worth rescuing from obscurity. Much of Bologne’s music has been revived recently – with some labelling him “the black Mozart”. He has been the subject of several recent biographies, notably one by Gabriel Banat, a violinist in the New York Philharmonic. And now here’s an engaged biopic.
Chevalier opens with the young Mozart (Joseph Prowen) giving a vainglorious violin concert in Paris and soliciting requests. The Chevalier (Kelvin Harrison Jr) takes the stage. A furious contest of ever louder and faster riffs ensues, the two moving around like rock stars, handling their violins like electric guitars. It’s a rap battle, or an evocation of Jimi Hendrix blowing Eric Clapton off the stage. Mozart is comprehensively bested, the crowd go wild. “Who the f*** was that?” asks the humiliated Wolfgang Amadeus. A walloping cut answers him with the film’s title: “Chevalier”. And the rest of the movie proceeds at much the same level of crass updating and spurious incitement.
The film’s director Stephen Williams (known for his TV work, notably Watchmen) and writer Stefani Robinson (Atlanta) have chosen to concentrate on Bologne’s relations with women, such as his ill-starred affair with the married singer Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving) and his difficulties with his saucy but erratic supporter Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) who, shockingly, sides with her class rather than with him.
The plot turns on how he is denied the directorship of the Paris Opera– the clearest example of his rise being frustrated by overt racism. His actual music is less focused upon (it’s been stirringly updated by Michael Abels, Jordan Peele’s collaborator). His military career is mentioned only in a brief endnote.
Throughout, the acting and dialogue make no attempt at historical plausibility, all being modernised. “They are extremely jealous of your very large… talent,” Marie-Madeleine Guimard tells the Chevalier. Marie-Josephine states that she may play the housewife but she can put up with her “lack of autonomy” only so long.
Many improbable scenes have been roughly shoved in to serve contemporary taste. Marie Antoinette accompanies Bologne to a secret revolutionary meeting and astonishingly takes the stage to demand equal rights for women. When the Chevalier is a bit low about his composing, his spirits are raised by joining in some modern Afrobeat street dance that happens to be taking place round the corner. The Chevalier’s improbably young mum Nanon (Ronke Adékoluejo, only three years older than 28-year-old Harrison Jr) acts as his black conscience, telling him her friends are laughing at him because he’s acting like a white boy. She delivers an inspiring Black Power speech: “There’s always a choice to fight.”
Harrison Jr (BB King in Elvis) apparently practised seven hours a day for the part – but he never looks as though he is actually playing or conducting. His demeanour throughout is pure rock star, a bit Hendrix, a touch Prince, proud and sulky, wildly anachronistic.
So this is a film about a significant moment in the past that is less interested in that past than in converting it into the present. That’s an opportunity wasted.
“Chevalier” is in cinemas now
This article appears in the 07 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Reeves Doctrine