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‘Chevalier’ Review: This Composer Biopic Needs to Loosen Up the Strings More

TIFF: Kelvin Harrison Jr. is electric in Stephen Williams' alternately raucous and staid biopic of Joseph Bologne.

“Chevalier”

Searchlight Pictures

For a man who was very nearly lost from history — forcefully erased both during his time and long after he’d passed away — Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges still managed to leave quite a footprint. Good luck choosing which of his many accomplishments to recognize first: his prodigious fencing talent, his exploits as the colonel of the first all-Black regiment in Europe, his incredible skill as a virtuoso violinist, the list goes on and on. In Stephen Williams’ “Chevalier,” it’s Bologne’s awe-inspiring work as a composer — so talented that he was often referred to as the “Black Mozart, an even funnier moniker considering the pair were contemporaries — that forms the center of an alternately raucous and staid biopic.

Born in the French “overseas department” of Guadeloupe in 1745, Bologne’s life was complicated from the start: he was born the son of a wealthy planter and an enslaved teenager who served as his own maid, and though his father acknowledged him and even supported him, the younger Bologne was always doomed to be an outsider no matter where he was. As Williams’ film — only the director’s second after his 1995 debut “Soul Survivor” and an enviable run of TV directing gigs — kicks off, our on-screen Joseph (played by the always-electric Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is busy beating back his outsider status with insane talent and a brash attitude to match.

He’s also, quite hilariously, beating back a shellshocked Mozart, as the confident young composer jumps on stage during a concert to play alongside the revered composer. Needless to say, it does not go the way Mozart — who all but rolls his eyes at Joseph’s skin color, and then dismisses him as a “dark stranger” — expects, and Joseph’s performance is so riveting and wild that he walks away with an even bigger head and a pack of brand new fans. The film opens during a “prelude to revolution,” as a title card tells us, though that’s winking at both what’s happening in France in the decades leading up to the French Revolution and what’s happening inside Joseph himself, a bonafide genius who was born at decidedly the wrong time in history.

While “Chevalier,” written by “Atlanta” and “What We Do in the Shadows” scribe Stefani Robinson, bounces briefly back in time to witness young Joseph’s arrival in France (he is not warmly received at his fancy school, which only appears to push him more firmly in his pursuits), the bulk of the film chronicles a roughly eighteen-month period in which Joseph became Chevalier to Queen Marie Antoinette (an outstanding Lucy Boynton), threw his hat in the ring to lead the Paris Opera, wrote a (now-lost) opera to prove his salt, and fell disastrously in love with a woman he could never be with (Samara Weaving).

The real Bologne’s life could fill three movies and still have plenty left over, and so while it absolutely makes sense that this initially energetic offering would try to fit his existence into a single movie-ready package, “Chevalier” begins to feel ever smaller as it ticks along. For such a big life — and such a big performance as the one Harrison ably turns in here — it feels nothing less than diminishing. Despite the film’s bold opening, “Chevalier” soon turns toward more traditional genre tropes, reducing Joseph Bologne to the kind of man who might be found in any kind of biopic, hardly the original and unmatched presence he clearly was in life and art. Perhaps that’s a compliment, that even our most daring revolutionaries can someday be slipped inside a crowd-pleasing historical epic that do not require any existing knowledge of their subjects to appreciate and enjoy them.

And “Chevalier,” despite its steadily devolving storytelling, is enjoyable and worthy of appreciation. When Williams and Robinson loosen up the strings and allow the film to feel as original and free as Bologne was at the height of his creative powers — a battle! with Mozart! with dueling violins! — and refuse to be beholden to the usual narrative beats and expectations, “Chevalier” soars. So does Harrison, whose cocky take on the young star is funny, flinty, and entirely justified. It all looks and sounds marvelous too, as lush and lavish as one would hope to see in a film about a generational talent set in late-18th century France, thanks to Jess Hall’s sweeping cinematography, Karen Murphy’s detailed sets, Oliver Garcia’s confectionary costumes, and Kris Bowers’ fittingly epic score.

Few people are as deserving as the grand-scale biopic as Joseph Bologne, and even when it’s hitting false notes, “Chevalier” dazzles because of the untapped magic of its central character. One film could never be enough to encompass his legacy, so perhaps this one might serve as an introduction to one of the world’s great geniuses. Sit through for the final credits, which also offer end cards that provide a taste of what else Bologne did with his wild life, long after the movie-primed portions have come to an end, and the true-life opera kept playing on.

Grade: B

“Chevalier” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. Searchlight Pictures will release it in theaters later this year.

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