“Chevalier”; or, When Memory is More than a Biopic
Chevalier, a film about Joseph Bologne that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2022 and recently dropped on Hulu, is dealing with some exceptionally high stakes for a music biopic. The reason: he’s an historical figure whose legacy was the target of active erasure, and so this movie about him — the first from a major studio — is a lot of people’s first exposure to the composer/athlete-cum-revolutionary.
But because so many details of his life — and so much of his music — has been lost, a movie like Chevalier is an early stop on the train that is the preservation of his memory in pop culture. To go beyond and really cement that legacy in the 21st century, we need to continue to listen to and engage with what remains of his output.
Drop in on my conversations as I discuss the film with Tim Huling of the Berklee College of Music and Dalanie Harris of the Classically Black Podcast; a new recording of Bologne’s 1780 opera L’amant Anonyme — and compositional style — with soprano Nicole Cabell; and the composer’s musical derring-do and singular qualities with Mark Clague of the University of Michigan.
To listen, use the player above, and read the transcript below.
(Hear more about the chamber music in this piece by Joseph Bologne from the Arabella Quartet.)
James Bennett, II I first heard about Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges, in a humorous history-oriented blog post. The internet was a different place a decade ago. It gave me the broad strokes: he was the son of an enslaved woman in Guadeloupe, and grew up in France, a true renaissance man. Superb athlete, excellent composer. World-class schmoozer. During the French Revolution, Joseph Bologne led the first all-black armed regiment on the European continent.
But when I read that blog post, I don't remember hearing any music to go along with it — I walked away from it knowing that he existed, and that he was a big deal, but I couldn't tell you much about his creative output.
It was the ultimate play of known unknowns; peak cocktail party trivia. The memory was solid, but the details were seen through a smudgy lens. It was like he was famous for not being famous.
Now if you’ve been paying attention since the turn of the millennium, you may have noticed his name and work popping up with slow, logarithmic growth. Rachel Barton Pine’s 1997 album, a 2003 made-for-TV documentary, a 2007 kids book calling him The “Other” Mozart. Not to mention increasing inclusion on concert programs, and even a 2019 play. And now, his memory seems to have secured the grand signifier for relevance of our time: a biopic. The full Hollywood treatment.
Movie Trailer You are quite a remarkable man, Joseph. I, Marie Antoinette, Queen of France, hereby anoint you: Chevalier.
In any other country, a man of your color would not be wearing such fine clothes.
One day the whole world will know me. And of course the music will be spectacular. Bold.
James Bennett, II There are new albums, too — and we’ll get to that — but first, let’s talk about this movie. Chevalier, directed by Stephen Williams from a screenplay by Stefani Robinson, debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in the autumn of 2022, and had a wide release in April of this year. The action centers the composer — played by Kelvin Harrison, Jr. — in a composition competition with the establishment champion Christoph Gluck. It’s a tale of dueling operas: whoever writes the better one will become the director of the Paris Opera. Spoiler alert: we’re talking about a Black man in the 18th century. Things were rarely that straight-forward then, let alone right now.
I went into the theater holding my breath — but saved enough of it to deliver a harsh "hush" to a pair of white women talking loudly in the beginning of the film. I don't know if they would have talked over a movie about Mozart, but the stakes for this film felt higher than usual. Music biopics, it seems, are notoriously difficult to get right — rife as they are with clichés and hagiography.
Tim Huling when people make movies about musicians, there is always a question of what is the . . . Why are they really making it? What are they really trying to say?
James Bennett, II That’s composer and Berklee College professor Tim Huling. He teaches in the screen scoring department.
Tim Huling Oftentimes the movie doesn't really exist to explore the musicianship of the musicians, the composers, whatever.
James Bennett, II But Chevalier is a biopic. It’s the story of a real person made manifest on screen. And on paper, that comes with a series of challenges. Chief among them is avoiding the cyclical clichés that follow a lot of musical biopics — kid finds out they’re pretty good at making music, they endure some emotional or physical trauma, then they eschew musical convention to make a name for themselves; they fall victim to fame and its orgiastic excesses and/or predatory management; then they undergo a redemption arc where they either flame out and die to be remembered fondly, or get their act together and live to be like 70 years old.
The lives are complicated but that formula is simple. Breaking away from that is a challenge, and is something we’re kind of rooting for in Chevalier.
Tim Huling again:
Tim Huling It is a really interesting question of like, how would he feel, you know, about the way the movie is representing his musicianship? It's a tall order to get this right. And he would probably see it and say, "well, that's not what my life was like, really. And that's not what I looked like when I played, I don't think, anyway.” It's a really interesting question of, is the movie really about a musician or is it about some other set of ideas?
James Bennett, II Turns out, the movie is about celebrity and prejudice in 18th-century Paris.
Tim Huling The point of the film is really about a number of social issues that are familiar to us from our conversation about our lives today. And were a big part of, you know, life in France in the run up to the revolution. To sort of confront, interrogate, look at the issue of race coming out of colonialism, to look at sexism and the co-occurrence of those in the same space is a fascinating conversation and an important conversation.
James Bennett, II In hindsight, it’s actually kind of hard for the movie to fall prey to the accepted clichés, because the very existence of Joseph Bologne is at odds with the conventional idea of what Paris is, or was. The redemption arc present in a lot of biopics can’t exist here, because it’s the white people that need to be redeemed and reperate (literally, when his wealthy father dies, the elder Bologne passes on none of that wealth). But they aren’t the focus — the focus is on Black excellence existing in a place that makes it exceptionally difficult to be. Chevalier is the definition of working twice as hard for ultimately half as much, and then losing even that in death.
Chevalier is still a movie, and the story needs to fit into a marketable feature-length package.
Aspects of a life lived get cut, and discreet episodes of that life collapse into one another for the sake of pacing. Embellishment is bound to happen, and at least for me, handling the embellishments feels slightly more delicate when there isn’t a ton of other biographical material to engage with.
Dalanie Harris, bassist and co-host of the Classically Black Podcast, shared some of her thoughts about that:
Dalanie Harris It was kind of difficult to approach the movie. Because of my background as a classical musician and because of my genuine interest in him as a historical figure, knowing that in order for it to be marketable to a larger audience, that that sort of thing has to happen. It was a little hard for me to watch some of these things that were embellished in, like, kind of... I don't want to say — I feel like shock value is a bit too harsh — but like, it has to be dramatic, you know?
James Bennett II Can you give an example of something that you kind of understood as a viewer, that you also understood the movie couldn't really dive into or structure itself around?
Dalanie Harris I mean, his music is the big one, I think. I feel like there's a real intensity that goes into the process of being a classical musician and in a composer which — I'm not a composer. I think that they had that sort of scene where it was the revolution and he was like, not supposed to finish that opera and put on the opera, but he was like really intentionally composing it. Like, I don't know exactly how to convey that space that someone is in when they're translating all of these absolutely unfathomable emotions and things that are happening to them into a piece of music. And it's hard to work with because, you know, someone whose music was destroyed after that revolution and stuff like that.
James Bennett, II There is a flip side to this. All the creative liberties taken because of the relatively small record of his life — not to mention the difficulty of making the interiority of composition compelling filmmaking — allows the filmmakers to explore another region of Joseph Bologne’s memory. It’s something that may be glossed over in encyclopedia entries or the annals of classical trivia and ephemera, but is glaringly obvious: his blackness.
There’s this one scene that stuck with me, where Bologne is at an emotional crossroads, and he’s looking at himself in the mirror. You see his hand reach for the powdered wig — an accessory that can only blend you in so much when your skin is of a darker shade. He hovers over it . . . and not long after that you have a scene where he’s getting his hair braided. It was a powerful way of connecting that outsider’s dilemma to modern audiences, where the dilemma still isn’t solved. There are allusions to it — his relationship to his blackness — but one can argue the movie could have dived deeper there.
Here’s Harris again:
Dalanie Harris There was a portion of the film where he sort of has this connection with his blackness that he's never had before. This is something that we don't have really any information about. But in the spirit of taking those liberties, I would have loved to see more of his relationship with that side of himself.
You could tell these sort of problematic ideals — that obviously he was steeped in because he was in this environment that did not respect him as a person — kind of showed through in the way that he acted, in the way that he treated his mother. And I can see that people are a product of their environment. And I like that, you know, at some point he was on the other side of that. But I think, in the spirit of people working through things like that, it would have been nice to see some more of sort of how he got there. Because I feel like people now have a lot of trouble undoing those sorts of things within themselves. I cannot even freakin’ imagine having to do that in that context.
James Bennett, II Remember earlier how I said the stakes for this movie felt higher than those for other movies? After some thought, I realized it was because this is the first major biopic treatment we’re getting of this towering figure whose legacy was the target of active erasure. If we’re talking about a movie about George Washigton that’s kind of wack, I’m not feeling any type of way. We all know who that guy is. It’s whatever.
Now, I largely liked Chevalier, even though I would have liked to hear more of his music, and, like Harris said, more time could have been spent on his relationship to his Blackness. But for a historical figure who is famous for not being famous, the fact that this exists at all is an artistic accomplishment.
Dalanie Harris I remember when the credits were rolling, I teared up. Like, I never thought I would see Chevalier de Saint-Georges on a movie screen. Like, it just always seemed like something I… I went to the library at school and picked up a book and I could read about him. But to see his life in a movie was just incredible. I just never thought that would happen.
James Bennett, II Joseph Bologne’s life is not cocktail trivia. To meaningfully engage with his legacy, we have to engage with his music.
And this is when we get to talk about a new recording of a Bologne opera: L’Amant Anonyme.
A major plot-point in Chevalier is Bologne’s composition of Ernestine. That opera no longer exists. But there is one that we do have, and there’s actually a thin reference to it in the movie, when Bologne’s friend and benefactor, Madame de Genlis, asks him to adapt her new play for the operatic stage. The play is L’amant Anonyme, The Anonymous Lover. Bologne wrote it in 1780, but for some reason it’s yet to enter the arsenal of productions for most modern companies. Still, LA Opera streamed a digital production in the autumn of 2020. I just checked and as of this recording you can still watch it. And Haymarket Opera Company staged a production in 2022. They recorded it, and released it this year.
It would probably help to know what the opera is about. Think of it as a pre-Rostand Cyrano de Bergerac — romance and secret admiration and all that. Kind of…
Nicole Cabell So it's actually a love triangle, but there's not three people.
James Bennett, II That’s soprano Nicole Cabell, who sings the role of Léontine in that Haymarket Recording. She’ll explain.
Nicole Cabell I play a widow who was in a pretty toxic relationship.And so she's against the idea of falling in love again. She does not want to. So her best friend for many years, turns out he’s has been in love with her the whole time they've been friends. And for years has been sending her anonymous letters and mounting anonymous gestures like, you know, sending her bouquets or little dances and songs to surprise her. And so he's her best friend advising her about what to do about this anonymous lover, which happens to be him. And then she starts to develop feelings for her best friend, and for the anonymous lover whose behavior is very different than her friend. And then she's kind of deciding between the two of them. "Oh, goodness. Well maybe I will open my heart to love. I don't know. I'm having these feelings and I didn't think I would. But I guess it's time to start thinking about falling in love again. But jeez, I really, I'm certain I have feelings for both of them. What do I do?" And so this is the general conflict.
James Bennett, II So we have an opera with a happy ending. A rarity! But even more rare is its performance history. How do you prepare for a role for an underperformed opera? Depending on how you approach preparation, this isn’t as big a deal as you think — Nicole says that a lot of vocal teachers would ask you not to listen to other recordings off the bat, the reason being, if the recorded singer doesn’t quite get something right — an errant rhythm or pitch or pronunciation — then that bad habit can imprint itself onto your performance. It’s only after she develops a technical mastery of what’s expected, that other recordings come in.
Nicole Cabell At that point, I'll try to seek out as many recordings as possible to get an idea of what is expected, traditionally. How some singers might approach things artistically and technically that have done this piece that I'm trying to learn, and I usually learn a ton from that.
James Bennett, II One problem with this opera, though. L’amant Anonyme just isn’t the only surviving opera we’ve got from Joseph Bologne. The recording that Nicole sings on, that Haymarket Opera Company produced in 2022? That’s the first commercial recording made. There isn’t anything to look back on, so how do you prepare for a role in the figurative dark?
Nicole Cabell There was no commercial recording and that's when you have to sort of just find your piano skills and your language skills and do the best you can. We were very fortunate to be able to get diction coaching. Nathalie Colas was our Dorothée in our cast, and she, her French, of course, is perfect and we were able to work that way with her, which was absolutely essential. Nothing like that really existed for us to get our ears tuned to, so, that's just you rely[ing] on all of your training.
James Bennett, II There’s also some contextual help that she can rely on, given the musical style in which Bologne was composing.
Nicole Cabell Again, I've been doing this for decades now and I've listened to so much music that is tonally similar or structurally similar to this music that it wasn't kind of wildly unfamiliar to my ear. I sing a lot of Mozart, so it was a similar approach.
James Bennett, II If you take anything away from this discussion, I want it to be this: “similar” is not “same.” The moniker “Black Mozart'' gets thrown around a lot, regarding Joseph Bologne. Recently though, it’s getting much-deserved pushback. Such a designation is misleading at best and insulting at worst. (The least of which is that Bologne was more than ten years older than Mozart.)
But calling someone “Black Mozart” confers a cultural primacy to Mozart’s music, and implies another’s work is a cheap imitation, that they’re trying to do what Mozart does but just can’t get there. Or that the reason why the name gets forgotten is that we reward superior product or output. Calling anyone the “Anything Mozart” really, is as wild as a watch rental company calling itself “the Uber of your wrist” just because it's a start-up project based on the West Coast. It’s like saying The Jimi Hendrix Experience are an American Zeppelin just because they also make blues-driven rock music, despite the fact that the Experience was founded before Zep.
Just because you have a similar vocabulary doesn’t mean you’re going to say the same thing.
When I asked Cabell to give me an example of what set the Chevalier’s music apart from his contemporaries, she zeroed in on tessitura — the area within a vocal or instrumental range that’s most comfortable for the musician. For a soprano like Cabell, a lot of music gets sung in the middle of the voice, or slightly higher. But Bologne’s music takes it up a notch.
Nicole Cabell And Joseph Bologne's music requires all the voice types in the opera to sing well above this area. And so you really have to have a really fine grasp of technique in order to understand how to sing some words in very, very high parts of the voice. So that took a little while to get into my voice. And that is not something that is typical of Mozart. And sort of atypical of many composers I've sung. But the effect is pretty cool.
James Bennett, II Can you give me an example of an aria or other moment from the opera that demonstrates this? Something you sing?
Nicole Cabell Sure, sure. Yeah. I have Son amour, sa constance extrême, is the name of the aria.
Nicole Cabell There's a part at the end where I say "Non, rien". And this "rien" that I'm singing is up on a high C. And again, this is not an area where we're often required to sing a word up there. So when you sing a word "rien" on a really, really high note, you've got to know how to relax your vocal mechanism, sort of like the inside of your head and your throat and everything to sort of get that word to come out and not sound screamed like we're just shouting in your face or singing those words.
So I would say this is a sort of a challenging aria, or rather challenging opera, for a young singer who doesn't really have that figured out yet.
James Bennett, II It’s difficult to stress how big of a deal it is that Bologne was a celebrated musician writing opera in Paris. Mark Clague, a professor of Musicology at the University of Michigan — and author of this recording’s liner notes — explained that this was the arena where composers “pushed the envelope,” musically. In Bologne’s time, opera was the cultural powerhouse.
Mark Clague And opera starts in Italy, but comes to France. And by the late 18th century is the premier genre of music-making in French culture. And this is the moment that Bologne sort of comes to prominence as an opera composer. And he writes, you know, six operas of which only L'amant Anonyme survives in manuscript.
But I think there's a magic in really starting to appreciate his vocal writing and his vocal music. And this was his real focus as a professional musician for the last ten, 15 years of his life. So this is a really important window, not only into Bologne but into sort of what the preeminent cultural musical expression of Paris in the late 18th century.
James Bennett, II So can you talk a little bit about how this opera was received when it premiered in France?
Mark Clague I can’t.
James Bennett, II Oh, okay. Is it because we don't know or...
Mark Clague I mean, the opera is done… So one the things that's really apparent in Bologne's career is the way that racism affected his life. And so, given his prominence as a musician, he was actually considered, you know, as the potential Music Director of the preeminent opera company in France, for the Paris Opera. And it was a sort of a racist attack by three of the singers who said that it would besmirch their honor to be conducted by a mulatto that prevented him from being appointed. And so his operatic life sort of retreats into a private theater through one of his patrons. And so these are not being performed so much in public as for a private audience in more of a country estate than in downtown Paris.
James Bennett, II That retreat into private life after being denied a job he was qualified for — and had in the bag! — is doubly frustrating. It locks away conversations about the limits and innovations of music at that time. But L’amant gives us glimpses into that. Like Cabell said earlier, he would do his own thing musically, even when operating in the framework of what made good opera. In France, that included the ballet portion of the program — a tradition that stretched back to the days of Jean-Baptiste Lully in the court of Louis XIV. But Joseph Bologne had his own way of doing it.
Mark Clague So what's interesting about Boulogne is that he takes this tradition, this hundred year old tradition of French dances and sort of reimagines it through the way in which he characterizes the various people in this opera. So one of the amazing things about the opera and of course, it's just a few years before the French Revolution… And so this whole idea of the French people, I think, sings through in Bologne's opera in a really interesting and political way. So the opera ends with a contredanse, which is a country dance, and the country dance is a big line dance.
So rather than breaking people up into couples and dividing the male and female parts and hierarchy, the contredanse puts everybody sort of on the same playing field. And so, what's amazing is that there's a kind of revolutionary conclusion, in a way, to this opera because there's this country couple that's parallel to the aristocratic couple in the opera, and the country couple is a kind of symbol of what true love really is all about. It's Jeanette and Colleen. And, you know, their love is represented as sort of pure and natural. And in a way, they're almost teaching the aristocracy how to behave. But ending with the contredanse, ending with a sort of dance of equals in French society, I think is a really profound and revolutionary act.
James Bennett, II I know how the story ends. You do, too, given how little — relatively speaking — you hear his name or listen to his music. Which, again, was by design.
Still, it’s hard to wrap your head around the fact that someone so famous and talented, and celebrated — or even exploited — could be so thoroughly written out of the record. Joseph Bologne epitomizes working twice as hard for half as much. Or, depending on how you look at it, nothing at all. He borders on the legendary — they said he could swim the River Seine with one arm. He was a champion fencer and a capable boxer.
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge his military career leading up to his final days. He led the all-Black regiment known as the Legion de Saint-Georges during the French Revolution. His friend Louis Phillipe II was executed during the Reign of Terror, and Bologne himself was thrown in prison. He was released, but he wasn’t reinstated in the military. The details of the end of his life are murky: Some say he traveled to Saint Domingue, now Haiti, to aid in that revolution. He died in 1799. And, apparently, the music consoled him.
But then he disappears from the record. Here’s Mark again.
Mark Clague I think his story, starting in about 1802, was intentionally erased. I think his whole life is a counterexample to the notion that African-Americans and people of African descent could be treated as things to be bought and sold, that slavery was in any way morally or ethically justifiable. Because, of course, you know, the people who are enslaved were represented as not entirely human,as sort of deserving of this fate, right? So in that racist ideology, you couldn't have someone like Joseph Boulogne exist. And so he was taken away.
James Bennett, II His legacy is incompatible with 19th century Europe then, and honestly, it’s barely compatible now. We’re asked to come and be dazzled by the amazing negro musician! A lot of times, the music isn’t there. The humanity isn’t there. And it’s deprioritized, because it’s too often not the point. The truth is, it makes for good storytime because in a white-dominant reading of things, Joseph Bologne wasn’t supposed to happen. He’s an anomaly, sure. But that is because of all the other folks who came from similar backgrounds who were totally shut out of any arenas of artistic and professional expression. And even in Bologne’s case, someone who got that chance? The record was wiped.
His music is being programmed more. There are a few radio documentaries. There are works for stage, and now cinema. And for me, watching that movie really hammers down much of my cultural heritage — in a diasporic sense — I’ll never fully know about. Now, the charge is to find what does exist, and give it a shot, and share it with others. Because Joseph Bologne knew he was good, and that memory is more than deserving of extra respect.