Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

Mozart. Bach. Chopin. Beethoven. We remember these men as the masters of composition of their time. But for decades – centuries, really – one name has been left off of that list. 

Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, was a Caribbean-French composer, a virtuoso on the violin, and at one point the conductor of Paris’ leading symphony. He is remembered today as the earliest composer of partial African descent – his father was a wealthy white planter and his mother an enslaved Senegalese woman named Nanon – who achieved widespread notoriety during his life. 

Today, the Chevalier is largely forgotten by the masses, and certainly not as widely known as the likes of Mozart or Beethoven. But “Chevalier,” a new film starring Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the titular role, brings Bologne’s story to a wider audience. 

Screenwriter Stefani Robinson, who attended Lassiter High School in Marietta, first learned about Bologne a bit earlier than most. When she was a teenager, her mother gave her a book about the Chevalier’s life, and she was hooked. 

“At the time, no one around me had ever heard about it or taught about him, or played his music or anything like that,” Robinson said. “He’s been one of those historical figures for years that I knew about, and was frustrated that no one else really knew about.”

The Emmy-nominated Robinson cut her teeth writing for television shows like “Atlanta” and “What We Do in the Shadows.” Roughly five years ago, she started discussing the possibility of writing a movie with Searchlight Pictures. When asked what she would write about if she were to write a feature, Joseph’s story was at the forefront of her mind. 

The script soon fell into the hands of director Stephen Williams, who has had a long and successful career in television, particularly on the juggernaut television series “Lost.” Unlike Robinson, his prior experience with the Chevalier was a little more to be expected. 

“I knew absolutely nothing about Chevalier,” Williams said. “Three pages in, I was hooked. When I got to the end of the script, I couldn’t believe that I had never heard of this person.” 

Robinson and Wiliams both had similar answers when asked what drew them to Bologne’s story, although with slight twists. Robinson said when she first began learning about him in high school, he felt like a sort of epic hero – someone with a story tailor made for a film. 

“This guy was born on Christmas Day on a plantation, and then when he’s old enough he’s shipped to Paris and becomes this master fencer, master violinist, master equestrian, speaks all these languages, becomes Marie Antoinette’s tutor, becomes essentially one of the most celebrated musicians of the time,” she said. “Everything about him felt like it was larger than life and felt like an epic.”

Williams was drawn to the story for a few personal reasons, he said – Bologne was born in the Caribbean, and Williams was born in Jamaica. Bologna moved to Paris at a young age, while Williams moved to England. But both he and Robinson said they felt drawn to the idea of what they viewed as a modern story locked inside what essentially amounts to a period piece. 

“So much of what Joseph was grappling with and so much of what the times in which he was living [in] were grappling with in mid-to-late 1700s France, felt like they were contemporary,” Williams said. “They felt culturally relevant to the moment we find ourselves in. I literally found myself imagining a version of the movie where if there were no wigs or costumes, and it wasn’t a period movie, it could feel very much like it was unfolding in the here and now.”

Kelvin Harrison Jr. in the film CHEVALIER. Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures.

That modern sensibility is evident on screen. “Chevalier” opens with a Mozart concert. Before we know who Chevalier is, he interrupts the show, strutting out of the shadows and challenging Mozart – one of the most prolific and influential composers to ever live – to what essentially amounts to a battle of the bands via violin. The camera whips back and forth between the two men as they give everything they have, the music feels bold and thrilling, and the audience gasps, cheers, and swoons their way through the number. In short, it feels like a rock concert. 

“He was like a rock star of his time – he was like Prince, or Jimi Hendrix,” Williams said. “It’s important to remember and remind oneself that when Joseph was alive – pre-vinyl, no iPods, no CDs, no wax, none of that – if you wanted to hear music, it was all live. It was all happening in the now. And everybody’s reaction and relationship to him and response to him was all in the now. It was immediate. I wanted to find a visual grammar that would help put viewers in that place.” 

Williams described the opening sequence – which did not actually occur in real life – as a “rap battle,” and as a way to capture the essence of the Chevalier from the start. Even if this particular event didn’t happen, it feels emotionally true to what we come to learn about the character. It helps that throughout that sequence, according to Williams, there’s no movie magic faking Harrison Jr.’s playing. That’s all him bowing. 

“He’s a really soulful actor,” Williams said of Harrison Jr. “He’s got crazy chops, but beyond that, he comes from a musical family so he was intuitively able to understand the interior landscape of Joseph Bologne.” 

While that initial scene might be a cinematic creation, Robinson said they were fortunately able to use much of Bologne’s real music. For example, they incorporated real sections of Bologne’s opera “Ernestine,” which is featured heavily in the film. However, because they didn’t have the entirety of the piece, they needed a little extra help. 

While Kris Bowers wrote the original score for the film, composer Michael Abels helped create the music that is played onscreen within the context of the movie. That process involved arranging some of Bologne’s actual work as well as writing new compositions.

“Michael Abels in particular took a lot of thematic elements and phrases from Joseph Bologne’s actual music, and then that inspired him to write his own original music for the movie as well,” Robinson said. “Joseph was definitely the place where everything started, even if it was original music. That’s where the inspiration always came from.” 

Writer and Journalist Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell

Sammie Purcell is Associate Editor at Rough Draft Atlanta.