Chevalier star ‘felt like a detective’ piecing together the true story
Kelvin Harrison Jr plays virtuoso violinist, composer, and fencer Joseph Bologne in the new film.
A couple of months after it was released in the US, new film Chevalier has just arrived in UK cinemas – telling the true story of virtuoso violinist, composer, and fencer Joseph Bologne.
Although he was one of the most talented musicians of his time, Bologne's name is rarely mentioned alongside his contemporaries such as Mozart or Joseph Haydn, largely because many of his achievements have been scrubbed from the historical record due to the fiercely racist time period in which he lived and worked.
With Chevalier, screenwriter Stefani Robinson and director Stephen Williams aim to finally give Bologne his due, something which star Kelvin Harrison Jr was only too happy to contribute towards given his own lack of prior knowledge about the composer.
"The fun thing about [the film] is the way people in France heard about Joseph felt like how I heard about Joseph," Harrison Jr explains during an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com.
"It was like you go to certain meetings, and they'd be like there's this film, Chevalier, it's about this guy named Joseph Bologne, and he's this incredible fencer and composer. And you go, Oh, wow, he was black, what? And then eventually I got the script and that's when I started to really get to know what he represented and who he was."
Harrison Jr wasn't the only member of the cast who had limited knowledge of Bologne prior to appearing in the film. Lucy Boynton, who plays the iconic Queen of France Marie Antoinette in the film, had briefly heard of him but only recognised him by the moniker 'Black Mozart.'
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"I thought that I hadn't heard of him before and then when reading the script I realised that he's who I've read about referred to as black Mozart," she says.
"And so that immediately was a catalyst for conversation with Stephen Williams, the director, about how many historical figures have been lost and their accolades diluted because their success has been attributed to their white – or male – counterpart."
Of course, the problem with making a film about someone whose life and work had largely been expunged from the historical record is that it can be tricky to gather enough facts to tell a wholly true account. This is something that immediately became apparent to Harrison Jr, who says he "felt like a detective" when he was piecing together the available details.
"There wasn't much information about him," he says. "So the information that was there, you had to really dissect and psychoanalyse to an extent, and think about who was saying this stuff and why did they say it, and what is the context? So you take the pieces that work, and you throw away the pieces that don't really add up."
This was a similar approach taken by many of the other cast members, including Boynton, who describes the process as "a really interesting and new research period."
'There isn't as much about him, or as many research resources to pull from because he's been strategically erased from the history books," she says. "So much of this was coming from Stefani Robinson, our writer, and whatever books I could get my hands on."
"Stefani was the biggest resource because she had done such a deep dive into all these fascinating people's lives," agrees Samara Weaving, who plays Bologne's lover Marie-Josephine de Montalembert. "I did order a book that Marie-Josephine wrote to her husband, I'm pretty sure it was about weapons – but I can't tell because it was in French, and there was no English translation I could find. But I did buy the book!"
Ultimately though, Harrison Jr and the other cast members were of the opinion that since the film is "not a documentary" there was no need for everything that happened in the script to be based on real events – allowing them room to find a little of their own interpretations.
"I know sometimes when we watch these movies, we're thinking to ourselves: is this as accurate or truthful as possible?" he says. "And that's not the point of making this, this is not a documentary. This is literally for entertainment purposes. It's to put classical music back in its rightful place, and to give Joseph Bologne the rock star status that he deserved.
"And [you have to ask] who are we making the movie for? We're making it for people on Tik Tok, on Instagram, people who live in today's society. Therefore, a contemporary modern element has to be put into place otherwise, who cares?"
This is something that was also very important to Robinson, who has previously won acclaim for writing on shows such as What We Do in the Shadows and Atlanta. Robinson acknowledges that the lack of available information made it "harder to get into the mind of the historical figure and the character" but also says it made her job easier in some other ways.
"It was easy in that because those things don't exist and there is scant information, but there is enough information for us to piece him and his world together, I think it just became fun," she says. "You do get to fill in the blanks and you do get to use your imagination.
"And I think a lot of biopics – and I would not consider our film a biopic – but I think a lot of biopics, at least to me, do feel stale, or can feel stale and maybe less dramatic or cinematic because they are so handcuffed to the facts, and these are the facts, and this is what happened, and here's how it happened.
"And I think for us, because we didn't know everything we did get to invent and make his story feel a bit more operatic or mythical in a way, and I think that was our intention."
One of the ways in which the film slightly differs from events as they happen concerns the role of Marie Antoinette in Bologne's life. Although much of what we see in the film is true – including the fact that she was initially a champion of his work – the specifics of their relationship and her role in preventing him from becoming maestro at the Paris Opera have been altered slightly, as Robinson explains.
"Our movie is a little bit different than what happened in real life, but in real life Joseph was up for the Paris Opera and there was a petition that was circulated asking him not to be because of his race – and that he would not be respected if he was to receive the appointment," she says.
"And Joseph actually rescinded his name so as to not embarrass the Queen. But she didn't do anything – she never put her foot down and she never defended him, it seemed outwardly at least, and the position of the Paris Opera sat vacant for years. Like they literally just did not hire anybody, and let it sit vacant because they just didn't want to give it to Joseph!
She continues: "But the fact that that situation went down, and knowing Marie Antoinette didn't really do anything to make the situation turn into anything else, it was just a clue for us that maybe that's what the relationship was like. And I think leaning into that can be that idea of convenient allyship [which is] one of the main and most important conflicts of the story, not only from a dramatic perspective but obviously from a really emotional perspective."
When it came to Marie Antoinette, the key thing for Boynton is that she didn't simply want to play a caricature of the Queen based on previous onscreen iterations of her and the "preconceived notions" she had.
"I think the fact that there are other iterations of her actually made me feel really safe to then just focus on this version and this tone," she says. "Because it means that you're free from the idea that you have to really represent this person and try and cram the entirety of their identity and self into 90 minutes.
"She's really different to the way that she's been portrayed I think historically, or at least it gave me a tremendous amount of context for the reasons that she behaved the way that she did.
"For example, I was really struck by how young she was when she married Louis – she was 14 – and I think it's different absorbing that information as an adult and trying to go in obviously from an empathetic point of view. Because I think that immediately alters the way that you see someone and the way that they grow up when that is their foundation.
"And I just thought it was fascinating to acknowledge her as that kind of woman in a way that she's been, I think, very much reduced to a historical villain. And had she been villainised for the things that she does in this film one could have understood it, but I think it is really interesting to get the full picture."
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