Surprising Chevalier

How could I resist seeing Chevalier, the new film about Joseph Bologne?

He’s been called the “black Mozart”. He was given the title Chevalier de St Georges by Marie Antoinette, composer of operas, symphonies, a virtuoso violinist and master swordsman.

Let me be clear. His actual life story is so spectacular as to defy filming, more unlikely than something Hollywood would create. His father was a plantation owner who had sex with a young slave in the West Indies, a servant to his wife. The father would provide for his son’s education in France, where the boy grew up to become a great violinist and swordsman.

If you don’t believe me, go to his Wikipedia entry.

There are some departures from the truth, as the new film takes liberties. Sticklers may object to how Mozart or Gluck are portrayed. The French Revolution looms over them all like a threat.

I recall some of the things I heard when Amadeus came out in the 1980s, the objections to Mozart’s hair or his conducting or his laugh. That was of course a film of a play, not reality, yet it came to be the way many people have understood Mozart let alone the misrepresentation of poor Salieri, caught in the crossfire of Shaffer’s play. I bring that up because in this case it’s a relatively unknown figure whose story has not been told before.

I’m grateful that I saw his opera L’Amant anonyme just over a month ago that brought this composer to my attention. I recall saying something in the review that may have sounded prophetic. I said “His life story would make a great opera: but that’s a tale for another time,” not realizing that they were busily preparing a film. But the story of his life is actually even more remarkable than what they presented. His father, we’re told (tiny spoiler coming), left neither him nor his mother any money. But that’s not true, his father actually provided for both of them. A distant father is perhaps better for Hollywood yet the truth is subtler. There are other discrepancies. But his story is a new one. Director Stephen Williams and writer Stefani Robinson likely won’t be taken to task by anyone in the film world for infelicities, while those of us from the operatic realm aren’t their biggest concern.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. makes the most of the starring vehicle. We saw him in Elvis and Cyrano, two of the few recent films I’ve actually seen. The film looks and sound splendid. It’s entertaining even if it bends the truth a bit. But I don’t think any harm is done in the process. See it, and I’m sure you will enjoy it whether or not it’s accurate.

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