The scene that opens Chevalier sums up the whole approach of the new biopic. A young and arrogant Mozart is playing to an enraptured crowd when a voice pipes up from the audience belonging to an upcoming composer named Joseph Bologne. He asks if he can join the stage, prompting an enthralling violin duel (think a rap battle, but with wigs and strings) from which he emerges as the clear winner. Mozart’s response? "Who the fuck is that?" as the film cuts to the Chevalier title card.
It’s a killer opening and one that boldly warns audiences that this is not your typical period drama. Chevalier has a different motive up its sleeves: introducing you to one of the great yet forgotten composers of all time.
"This dude was up there with Mozart," lead actor Kelvin Harrison Jr. explains to GamesRadar+ when we ask him about the electric opening scene. "Everyone knows Mozart and everyone loves Mozart and thinks he's a legend. But it’s like, 'Have you heard of the Chevalier? Yeah, even Mozart is scared of him.' I think it’s an incredible way to introduce a character and put it back into perspective what he represented at that time."
It’s also full of rockstar energy too, which makes sense given it was inspired by a real moment between Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton. Bringing this element into Bologne’s character was key for Harrison Jr. "Oh my god, that was the thing that made me want to do the job. If he was just sitting around doing nothing, I think I would be like, 'Cool, a drama about a guy who fell in love with a girl.' That’s not that interesting, but this is firecrackers. This dude is wild, he's sleeping with everybody, he's talking to everybody, he's disturbing everybody's peace. He’s just being chaotic and messy. It’s the ultimate character."
Indeed the real story of Bologne, and how he became the Chevalier de Saint-Georges, a title similar to a knighthood, is fascinating. Born the illegitimate son of an African slave and a French plantation owner, he was taken from his mother as a child and placed in a prestigious and narrow-minded French academy, where he perfected the arts of violin, composing, and fencing. After catching the eye of none other than Marie Antoinette, he is catapulted through French society – a place that’s keen to take what it can from him at any cost.
Practice makes perfect
Harrison Jr. is no stranger to musical films, having appeared as Christian in Cyrano and B.B. King in Elvis after building an indie career with Luce and Waves. And once again, it was the music that was his entry point to Chevalier, with a little bit of help from his dad who is a classical music teacher. "I started trying to just do all the research at first and then I called my dad and he was like, 'Okay Kel, you're doing all this research, but you don't even know his music and the man is really incredible because of his music, that's where the intimate moments are,'" he explains. "So then I just went back and I went straight to the music and I listened to it non-stop. I just kept playing them and I would discuss them with my dad.”
From there, he needed to master the physical skills to convincingly become a musician to rival Mozart – as well as an acclaimed fencer. Explaining the process, Harrison Jr. says he spent six hours a day, seven days a week, for five months learning these. And that was before shooting kicked off when he’d have 10-hour filming days before fencing and playing violin for another two hours afterwards.
"Everyone used to give me a hard time about not relaxing enough," he recalls. "But you can't when you're dealing with Joseph, you really want to honor it and do it correctly. If you can't do the violin stuff and you don't believe he's actually a virtuoso, then you're not going to be able to buy the movie. So I wanted to get as close to being as incredible as he was as possible."
He was helped, he says, by Michael Abels’ beautiful compositions, which he worked on with Bridgerton’s Kris Bowers. "Listen, can I play anything outside of those tunes? No," Harrison Jr. laughs, "but boy, can I play the hell out of those tunes? Yeah."
Although, don’t expect to see him picking up the instrument again any time soon: "Once I left Prague [where the movie was shot], I left the violin. I was like, 'I'm done. It's time to go to my next job.' Joseph is a stressful character to carry with you. So, I've been trying to practice as an actor, especially when you're my age, [to let go]. It starts to be a little bit like trauma. I was like, 'I’ve got to leave that, I’ve got real life.'"
Let them eat cake
The process of inhabiting a real figure also became very familiar to Harrison Jr.'s co-star Lucy Boynton, who plays Marie Antoinette in the movie. Going in, the Bohemian Rhapsody actor tells GamesRadar+ that she knew a lot about the heavily-portrayed monarch, which actually made her hesitate about taking on the part.
"Before reading the script, I did question whether we need to hear from a voice like hers right now," she explains. "But then I was really taken aback by the script and this very different side of her that we haven't really explored before, especially in the context of this relationship."
In the film, Antoinette is a mentor figure to Bologne, bringing him into the fray of French high society. "It starts in a really beautiful place and it was so much fun to do those scenes," Boynton says of that dynamic. "I think there is totally an element of convenient allyship there where she wants to be around him because he's so talented and so magnetic, and therefore wants to be seen with him next to her to up her own credit."
As the Chevalier’s career grows and grows, their relationship sours, which leads to some of the most painful moments of the film. "[Joseph] is our hero in the movie and he's so good, so worthy of the audience’s respect," Boynton explains. "So I wanted to create the kind of equal and opposite in this very dark villain worthy of fighting the ultimate hero."
"I wanted to drive it into a really kind of bad, venomous, dark place," the actor continues. "And I think so much of the rhetoric that comes from her towards the end of the film is really contemporary, really familiar, and we're hearing a lot of it."
Boynton is reflective too that this isn’t the only contemporary relevance she took from her participation in the project. For her, the film is "such a strong reminder that history has had such a singular author”.
"When I went into the research for this, I realized that I had heard of Joseph Bologne, I'd just never heard of his name. I'd heard him referred to as 'Black Mozart'. It’s such an effective way to erase someone's identity and accolades by attributing it to their male or white counterparts. I think it's a reminder to really challenge history as it's been presented, challenge those who have been lauded as the only greats." Indeed, hopefully, Chevalier goes some way to righting those wrongs.