He was dubbed the “Black Mozart”, was a close confidant of Marie Antoinette, and was widely revered as one of the finest composers of his time. But Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges has become an obscure historical figure over the years, with his influence reduced to a mere footnote in the history books – if he’s even mentioned at all.
As Kelvin Harrison Jr., who plays the composer in lavish new biopic Chevalier told Zavvi, he’s “one of the original rock stars”, but his tale is only now getting told on the big screen. The actor confesses that the film’s screenplay was his first introduction to the forgotten icon, but he’s excited to be bringing his memory back to life.
He said: “It’s important to reframe the narrative around the relationship between Blackness and greatness throughout history, and to not allow certain figures to be lost in time simply because of racism. I’m glad we’ve been given this opportunity to reintroduce the world to Joseph”.
To bring his spirit to life for a contemporary audience, Harrison Jr. looked towards two 20th century rock stars for inspiration.
“I was influenced by Prince and Jimi Hendrix; I love Prince’s shadiness and pettiness, as well as his confidence. He was unapologetically himself, telling the world to receive him as he was and that it was your problem if you didn’t like it, just like Joseph.
“And Hendrix is… well, he’s just the coolest rockstar! He’s a genius who did his own thing, and I wanted to bring that unapologetic, uninhibited quality to the character.”
Harrison Jr. was a child violin prodigy, but he hadn’t picked up the instrument for decades before landing this lead role. When he was offered the part – his latest music-themed role following celebrated turns in Elvis and Cyrano – he knew it was vital that he learn from scratch, because “if you don’t believe that I’m the one playing the violin, then you don’t believe he is the Chevalier de Saint-Georges”.
He explained: “At first, I was counting on movie magic to make it happen – but (director) Steven told me he wasn’t giving me any of that, I had to learn how to play! It gave me two options, I could quit, or I could rise to the occasion and honour this man who sacrificed so much.
“And besides, you can’t buy the story if you don’t see that he’s the one playing, it’s the main thing I needed to do to sell this character”.
Screenwriter Stefani Robinson, best known for her work on sitcoms including What We Do In The Shadows, was inspired to write the biopic after first hearing about Joseph Bologne as a teenager. It started a lifelong obsession, and she jumped at the chance to bring his story to the screen
She told Zavvi: “As soon as I first heard about him, I wanted to make a movie about his life – I wanted to tell everyone I knew about him, there wasn’t a single thing about his life that wasn’t interesting or amazing in some way.
“I was astonished that nobody knew about this guy at all, especially within my circles. There was ten years that passed without any of my friends knowing who he was until they heard I’d pitched the movie!”
It’s a common refrain from everybody involved in the movie that they weren’t familiar with the real-life figure until they received the screenplay, and that extends to the film’s director Stephen Williams.
Telling Zavvi what inspired him to direct the movie, he said: “This person lived such a rich life – you could fill a dozen movies with his story, he was such an accomplished individual. I mean, he was a virtuosic violinist, a composer of concertos and operas, a champion fencer and a marksman; John Adams, who later became American president, described him as the most accomplished man in Europe.
“And I knew nothing about him before reading that screenplay. But I immediately knew his story was bold, operatic and tailor made for a movie.”
However, Joseph Bologne is considerably less obscure than Marie-Josephine de Montalembert, an opera singer played by Samara Weaving. The biopic charts the Chevalier’s semi-fictionalised attempts to become maestro of the Paris Opera, but finds himself getting into hot water with Marie-Josephine’s husband after asking her to be the lead – something she leaps at, against his will.
Weaving told Zavvi that her character was equally as groundbreaking as Harrison Jr.’s, explaining: “She was so complicated, and I love that she was so strong, and took such big risks in her life. She did things that were rebellious for that time.
“I think we, as a society now can look back and say, “Oh, well, of course, she’d leave, of course, she tried to break out from that marriage”, but it was such a huge risk back then. Your husbands owned you; you didn’t have any money to your name, or didn’t have any assets, so if they decided to leave you and give you nothing that was totally in the realm of possibility.
“The fact that she took it upon herself to demand autonomy and speak up in front of the court, taking charge of her life in the sense that she accomplished her dreams of singing and acting, was extraordinary for the time – not to mention very rare.
Weaving’s operatic vocals are dubbed over by a professional Italian vocalist in the movie, but she did rise to the challenge of singing lessons prior to the shoot. Now that the movie is out there, she wants to owe an apology to her housemate “who had to listen to me practice the same song over and over again, and I wasn’t good at it either!”
One character in the movie who needs no introduction is Marie Antoinette, played here by Bohemian Rhapsody’s Lucy Boynton. Upon being offered the role, the actress wanted to add a new depth to her as a historical figure – until her research showed that, well, there’s a limit to how much you can really defend her.
“I’ve changed my tune a lot since I first said I want to find her empathetic side”, Boynton told Zavvi. “When I went into that research period, I had such a preconceived idea of her being one of history’s ultimate villains.
“That extensive research helped me understand her context more; she married Louis XVI when she was 14 and became queen at 19, she wasn’t educated and had a very sheltered life from the outside world, which gave me an understanding of why she is this way in the film. I think had she been villainised for the things she does in this movie, it would have been much more understandable because what she did is deplorable.
“I went in with empathy because you always must sit in that when you’re with your own characters – but it was hard to do that when this film has a vision of her I have no interest in defending, she’s the ultimate villain! In the last scenes especially, I wanted to play her as ice cold, all venom, but still, she thinks she’s the victim; it’s an interesting extreme to go to as an actor.”
Harrison Jr. has joked in other interviews that this depiction of Marie Antoinette reminded him of real people he’s met in L.A. Her performance might be different from Kirsten Dunst’s take on the character in Sofia Coppola’s stylish 2006 biopic (which Boynton is a big fan of), but this is still a figure that has several parallels with real-life socialites.
“Poor Kelvin, I’m sorry he’s had to meet people like her!” Boynton laughed. “But within the realms of Versailles, she was the original trendsetter.
“One quote that really stood out for me during my research period was that she was a person who was so consistently out of touch and out of time with a world in decline. And I think that nails it to a tee.”
While Marie Antoinette continues to be a fixture of history curriculums the world over, this will be the first introduction to Joseph Bologne for many – and as Boynton concludes, it’s about time.
“We’re starting to realise that we ought to be challenging the curriculum as it’s been delivered to us; the version of history we’re taught at school isn’t the only one. This is such a great time to deliver an insight into the people who have been erased from the history books and strategically so, and that we need to dive into their stories – this movie is such a one-of-a-kind Trojan horse for that message.”
Chevalier is released in UK cinemas on Friday, 9th June.