By Kathryn Boole
Released April 21, 2023
Chevalier is based on the true story of a historical figure that very few people are familiar with, Joseph Bologne, or “Chevalier” as Marie Antoinette called him, who lived from 1745 to 1799 in France. This story desperately needed to be told, and screenwriter Stefani Robinson realized that when she learned about Bologne in high school by accident while reading a historical book. Bologne was a Creole man, the earliest European composer and musician of African descent to receive widespread critical acclaim. History seems to have forgotten him for the most part. Robinson and director Stephen Williams set out to rectify that omission. The real Bologne was a master equestrian, master fencer, master violinist and master composer, and he went on to lead an all-black regiment in the French Revolution. US President John Adams called him “the most accomplished man in all of Europe.” Robinson and Williams are new to feature film, though both have produced major TV shows. This movie was an ambitious undertaking for them– a period piece about a genius practically unknown to modern-day audiences.
Robinson researched all the material she could find on Bologne. She knew she had to see this film become a reality. ‘She watched YouTube reels of his music being performed; she researched the pop culture of his time. She watched Purple Rain multiple times since she saw Prince as a contemporary “Chevalier.” She became obsessed with the history of the era and with the man. Robinson and Williams tried to stay true to the facts for the most part, and where facts were missing, they stayed true to the spirit of Bologne’s story.
The opening sequence of the movie sets the energy and tone for the story, as Bologne plays “dueling violins” with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on stage to a wildly cheering audience. They are so on fire that you realize how classical musicians were the rock stars of the 1700s and 1800s. The energy of the scene is mesmerizing, and the audience at my screening clapped. In fact, they applauded more than once during the movie. Now Mozart and Bologne probably never met, so this is a fantasy. However, I wished that the rhythm and spirit of this duel had carried through the film.
That opening scene could never have been realized if it weren’t for the incredible work of the lead actor, Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays Bologne. Harrison is a musical prodigy himself. His parents were both musicians and he grew up playing several instruments, the first being the violin, which he learned when he was six or seven. He stopped playing the violin after a year or so. So, to play Bologne he had to immerse himself in the instrument. He thought it would be easy, that muscle memory would kick in. However, that was not the case. To regain that muscle memory took 5 months, 6 hours a day, 6 days a week of grueling practice.
This is a passion project for Robinson, Williams and Harrison, and the emotion and genuine excitement of the three pervades the movie. Chevalier is an enjoyable watch, and you will learn about someone you probably knew nothing about, and you can feel the fun the filmmakers are having. It doesn’t seem to be getting a lot of play in theatres. It may be that the story of “Chevalier” is being marginalized today as it has been throughout history.
Kathryn Whitney Boole has spent most of her life in the entertainment industry, which has been the backdrop for remarkable adventures with extraordinary people. She is a Talent Manager with Studio Talent Group in Santa Monica. firstname.lastname@example.org