Amidst a sea of musical biopics, Chevalier comes sauntering to the forefront with a fiery lead performance by Kelvin Harrison Jr. as the virtuoso violinist and composer some have nicknamed “the Black Mozart”. That man is Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, and in Stephen Williams’ film he’s depicted as a rock star of the 18th-century French musical scene. A true Renaissance man, Bologna’s impeccable skills, which included fencing and leading the first Black army regiment in all of Europe, were enough to catapult him into France’s elite society, rubbing shoulders with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) herself.
Chevalier kicks off with a cocky Saint-Georges disrupting Mozart’s concert and essentially challenging him to a violin duel. The young upstart, all Jimi Hendrix energy and sex appeal, easily wins over the raucous crowd and makes himself known to all of the Parisian nobility. The son of a white French nobleman and an enslaved Black woman from Senegal, Saint-Georges faced cruelty and racism from the all-white private school he attended. But the bullying only hardened his pursuits to greatness.
The film largely centers on a period when Saint-Georges is attempting to become head of the prestigious Paris Opera, writing an epic opera, facing stiff competition from a dismissive rival, and entering a doomed romance with the White singer (Samara Weaving) he has become obsessed with. The many chapters in Saint-Georges’ life could fill an entire miniseries, or a franchise of movies, but Williams does well to allude to this fact while keying in on a pivotal stretch of time. Saint-Georges might have been the most gifted man in all of France, but that is shown by screenwriter Stefani Robinson to be only enough to make him acceptable for a brief moment in time.
Chevalier is as much about how he rose to prominence despite the efforts of others, as it is about the successful efforts after his death to erase Saint-Georges from history. Even when some aspects of the movie don’t work, like the romance angle that falls flat, it radiates with the power of new discovery, of this trailblazing figure’s reemergence into the historical discussion. Harrison’s magnetic performance, and Robinson’s dynamic storytelling, give Saint-Georges the epic-scale biopic a man of his stature deserves.
Chevalier opens in theaters on April 21st.