Bringing Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-George, to life on the big screen
Saturday, June 17, 2023
Director Stephen Williams on how he recreated the personality and music of this extraordinary figure – and made him relevant for our age
Chevalier, a new film telling the story of Joseph Bologne, the 18th century composer and virtuoso, is in UK cinemas now. Its director tells Gramophone about the journey to depicting this remarkable - but little-known-about - figure on screen.
What were the roots of the film?
I'm first and foremost embarrassed to confess that I knew absolutely nothing about Joseph Bologne before I got the script – this accomplished composer, conductor, fencer, equestrian, marksman, man-about-town. So that set me off on a long journey of exploration. Then on a personal level, he came from Guadalupe, an island in the Caribbean, went to Paris and lived out his life in Europe. And I was born on another Caribbean island, Jamaica, and left home when I was roughly that age and went to school and university in England, and so there were many parallels between his life trajectory and mine. He of course was far more accomplished! But nonetheless I was able to recognise certain aspects of his journey, as an outsider, as an immigrant, as someone who exists on the margins of the culture that they found themselves in, and who by dint of ambition, and the exertion of ambition, is trying to put all of the pieces of that puzzle together.
Stephen Williams directing Kelvin Harrison Jr on the set of Chevalier (Photo by Larry Horricks. Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved)
The weird thing is that when you start familiarising yourself, not only with Joseph Bologna and his life, but also the context in which he lived – ie pre-Revolutionary France – what becomes glaringly apparent is how, as the French say, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, meaning the more things change the more they stay the same. And so much of the tumult and the social upheaval that was happening in the run up to the French Revolution reminded me of the very times that we're living in now, and so it felt like even though we were talking about events from a couple of centuries prior, it nonetheless felt as if it was an incredibly contemporary piece. So, without tipping the scales too heavily in an artificial way, we tried to render the film with a cinematic or visual grammar that would attest to that contemporary vibe. So many elements - racial animus being one of them - that were true then remain distressingly true today, and so it felt like drawing a kind of parallel between Joseph’s time and ours was meet and right.
How did you set about recreating his character?
So much that happens in the film is historically accurate, yet Joseph Bologne left behind no letters or diaries, no direct access to his psyche, so I had to approach inventing that portion of his life with fidelity, humility and commitment to honouring the truth of what we imagine this his life journey would feel like. While there isn't a huge amount that it has been written about Joseph, there's a lot that's been written about the times and the social fabric and context in which he lived. We knew he went to La Boëssière’s Academy when he was around 10 or 12. He started on the outside of French society and ascended so effectively that he became a very close cohort of Marie Antoinette’s. And yet towards the end of his life he had become so disenchanted with the monarchy, and so cognisant of all the other struggles around democracy and representation that were happening not just in France but also in England and specifically in the French colonies, he’d became so aware of that, albeit initially reluctantly, that by the time of the French Revolution he has now gotten to a place where he decides to lead the first all-black, 1000-man battalion in the Revolutionary Wars. Those two poles of his life journey gave us the pathway to trying to inscribe the evolution of a musical revolutionary.
How did you choose the music the film uses?
Part of the tragedy of Joseph’s life is that a good two-thirds of his musical output has either been destroyed or lost. Huge portions of Joseph’s music do play throughout the movie, but we also found incomplete pieces that two incredible composers, Michael Abels and Kris Bowers, built on in the idiom of Joseph Bologne. We tried to build a bridge between the mid-1700s and a more contemporary sound, because I wanted people to feel a sense of immediacy around the story’s events. I wanted the piece to feel urgent, and of now, without being gimmicky about it, while still keeping one foot planted in the truth and reality of the time period, and so the calibration of that balance was the trickiest aspect to the whole musical tapestry of the film.
Kelvin Harrison Jr as Joseph Bologne, the Chevalier de Saint-George (photo: Courtesy of Searchlight Pictures, © 2023 20th Century Studios. All Rights Reserved)
How did you depict the music on screen?
Kelvin Harrison Jr, who plays Joseph Bologne, worked six hours a day for six months learning how to be a virtuoso violinist before we started shooting, so there’s not a single performing shot in the movie that isn’t Kelvin – which is still mind boggling! I didn’t want to cut away to somebody’s hands because an audience would suss that out immediately, and it would become distancing. As for the musicians playing on the soundtrack, Randall Goosby is amazing, he is just a genius, and we were blessed to have him come and play on the soundtrack we recorded – and in an embarrassment of riches, we recorded him at Abbey Road too!
Some people will know the Chevalier, some a little bit about him, some not at all. Following this film, how would you like him to be thought of now, and how would you like to change perceptions or awareness of him?
You know, I'm not even sure that I thought so much about changing perceptions as just raising awareness because I just laboured under the shadow of my own personal embarrassment at not knowing anything about the Chevalier when I set out to tell this story. But what I find fascinating about him, separate and apart from his music – which is amazing in and of itself – is just how universal his story is. At the end of the day, the distillation of his life journey is one that I think so many of us can connect with: which is you start out at place A, and then you evolve and you change, and hopefully that evolution and the direction of that change is in the realm of locating yourself, within yourself, enhancing your own understanding of your true place in the world. I think that for many of us that is just a universal thing, which is to try to live inside our own skins as truthfully and is honourably as we can, and we try to be as connected to ourselves and our purpose here as we can, and I think that that Joseph's life took him on that journey.
Stephen Williams was talking to Martin Cullingford.
Chevalier is in UK cinemas now