Don’t feel ignorant if you’ve never heard of Joseph Bologne; neither had some of the people who made this movie. It’s easy to see why they responded to its story once it was uncovered. Bologne was the illegitimate son of a white 18th century plantation owner and a black slave woman. He was born with a gift for music and was a brilliant violinist and composer, as we learn in a sensational opening sequence that pairs him on stage with none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The scene is a tour de force that sets up everything that follows.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr. embodies the adult Bologne, who was welcomed in Marie Antoinette’s court in spite of being black, because he carried himself with great elegance and more than a soupçon of arrogance. From boyhood on, he discovered that his talent and personality would open doors that otherwise would have remained shut at that time.
But apparently there are gaps in the history of this unheralded composer and courtier, and many of his compositions no longer survive. That left me wondering how much of his story could be taken at face value, especially as Stefani Robinson’s original screenplay turns into a high-level soap opera. The Chevalier’s bold defiance of convention—and the open threats of a powerful and jealous husband—strain credulity and weaken the film.
There is little to complain about musically, as Kris Bowers and Michael Abels adapted and expanded Bologne’s surviving compositions and used them as inspiration for a newly-hatched score. The pieces performed on camera are deftly presented by director Stephen Williams and artfully edited by John Axelrad.
Chevalier is a provocative introduction to a historical figure whose life, whose very existence, has been largely overlooked until now. For that reason one can readily applaud the film and enjoy its strengths—and Harrison’s charismatic performance. But in the end, the movie isn’t nearly as good as its subject.