‘Chevalier’ Evaluation: Composer Biopic Must Loosen Up the Strings

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

For a person who was very almost misplaced from historical past — forcefully erased each throughout his time and lengthy after he’d handed away — Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges nonetheless managed to go away fairly a footprint. Good luck selecting which of his many accomplishments to acknowledge first: his prodigious fencing expertise, his exploits because the colonel of the primary all-Black regiment in Europe, his unimaginable ability as a virtuoso violinist, the listing goes on and on. In Stephen Williams’ “Chevalier,” it’s Bologne’s awe-inspiring work as a composer — so gifted that he was also known as the “Black Mozart, an excellent funnier moniker contemplating the pair have been contemporaries — that types the middle of an alternately raucous and staid biopic.

Born within the French “abroad division” of Guadeloupe in 1745, Bologne’s life was difficult from the beginning: he was born the son of a rich planter and an enslaved teenager who served as his personal maid, and although his father acknowledged him and even supported him, the youthful Bologne was at all times doomed to be an outsider regardless of the place he was. As Williams’ movie — solely the director’s second after his 1995 debut “Soul Survivor” and an enviable run of TV directing gigs — kicks off, our on-screen Joseph (performed by the always-electric Kelvin Harrison Jr.) is busy beating again his outsider standing with insane expertise and a brash perspective to match.

He’s additionally, fairly hilariously, beating again a shellshocked Mozart, because the assured younger composer jumps on stage throughout a live performance to play alongside the revered composer. For sure, it doesn’t go the best way Mozart — who all however rolls his eyes at Joseph’s pores and skin coloration, after which dismisses him as a “darkish stranger” — expects, and Joseph’s efficiency is so riveting and wild that he walks away with an excellent larger head and a pack of name new followers. The movie opens throughout a “prelude to revolution,” as a title card tells us, although that’s winking at each what’s occurring in France within the many years main as much as the French Revolution and what’s occurring inside Joseph himself, a bonafide genius who was born at decidedly the incorrect time in historical past.

Whereas “Chevalier,” written by “Atlanta” and “What We Do within the Shadows” scribe Stefani Robinson, bounces briefly again in time to witness younger Joseph’s arrival in France (he isn’t warmly acquired at his fancy college, which solely seems to push him extra firmly in his pursuits), the majority of the movie chronicles a roughly eighteen-month interval by which Joseph grew to become Chevalier to Queen Marie Antoinette (an impressive Lucy Boynton), threw his hat within the ring to guide the Paris Opera, wrote a (now-lost) opera to show his salt, and fell disastrously in love with a girl he might by no means be with (Samara Weaving).

The actual Bologne’s life might fill three motion pictures and nonetheless have lots left over, and so whereas it completely is sensible that this initially energetic providing would attempt to match his existence right into a single movie-ready bundle, “Chevalier” begins to really feel ever smaller because it ticks alongside. For such a giant life — and such a giant efficiency because the one Harrison ably turns in right here — it feels nothing lower than diminishing. Regardless of the movie’s daring opening, “Chevalier” quickly turns towards extra conventional style tropes, decreasing Joseph Bologne to the sort of man who may be present in any sort of biopic, hardly the unique and unmatched presence he clearly was in life and artwork. Maybe that’s a praise, that even our most daring revolutionaries can sometime be slipped inside a crowd-pleasing historic epic that don’t require any present data of their topics to understand and revel in them.

And “Chevalier,” regardless of its steadily devolving storytelling, is pleasing and worthy of appreciation. When Williams and Robinson loosen up the strings and permit the movie to really feel as unique and free as Bologne was on the peak of his inventive powers — a battle! with Mozart! with dueling violins! — and refuse to be beholden to the standard narrative beats and expectations, “Chevalier” soars. So does Harrison, whose cocky tackle the younger star is humorous, flinty, and completely justified. All of it appears and sounds marvelous too, as lush and lavish as one would hope to see in a movie a few generational expertise set in late-18th century France, due to Jess Corridor’s sweeping cinematography, Karen Murphy’s detailed units, Oliver Garcia’s confectionary costumes, and Kris Bowers’ fittingly epic rating.

Few individuals are as deserving because the grand-scale biopic as Joseph Bologne, and even when it’s hitting false notes, “Chevalier” dazzles due to the untapped magic of its central character. One movie might by no means be sufficient to embody his legacy, so maybe this one may function an introduction to one of many world’s nice geniuses. Sit via for the ultimate credit, which additionally supply finish playing cards that present a style of what else Bologne did along with his wild life, lengthy after the movie-primed parts have come to an finish, and the true-life opera saved taking part in on.

Grade: B

“Chevalier” premiered on the 2022 Toronto Worldwide Movie Pageant. Searchlight Footage will launch it in theaters later this 12 months.

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