The magic of classical music comes from the passion imbued in it. You don’t just listen to a great composition, you feel it in your bones. Without lyrics to partially distract you, the blending of instruments in various ways and at various tempos produces a physiological reaction that can be powerful. Chevalier is about the work of a real classical composer, Joseph Bologne. It appropriately focuses on passion, of both the musical and the romantic varieties. I’ve seen films about composers that are austere. This one is lively, sexy, occasionally funny, and completely captivating.

Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (Waves) plays Bologne. The son of a Black slave and a white plantation owner, he’s dropped off at a fancy French school as a child, given only one piece of advice by his father: “Always be excellent.” Taking that to heart, he hones his violin-playing skills to the max and masters fencing. As an adult, he struggles to establish himself in the lily-white musical world. A friendship with Marie Antoinette (Lucy Boynton) leads to getting dubbed Chevalier de Saint-Georges. It’s at least a start.

When a position heading the Paris Opera arises, Bologne makes an offer: He and the presumed leading contender, Christoph Gluck (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), will each compose an original opera. Judges will determine whose is better, and that person will get the job. To star in his own, he wants the talented Marie-Josephine (Samara Weaving). Landing her means keeping everything secret from her controlling, prejudiced husband, Marquis de Montalembert (Marton Csokas). Bologne is the far more compassionate man, and a spark ignites with Marie-Josephine.

Chevalier begins with a dazzling scene where Bologne interrupts a performance from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, upstaging him musically in the process. That’s a sign of the fun to come. The movie depicts the serious racism its protagonist continually faces, but it’s satisfying to watch him meet every challenge with unwavering determination. When something or someone knocks him down, he uses that as motivation. Great suspense is built from the competition, since we know the odds are stacked against him. Harrison is, as always, phenomenal, making Bologne’s pursuit of excellence palpable, while also giving him a big personality that guarantees we want to follow his journey.

The actor has superb chemistry with Weaving, who has never been better than she is here. Together, they build a believable attraction between the characters. Sections of the film dealing with their relationship have a strong emotional quality because the connection is so pleasing to watch. The romance additionally underlines how different the playing field is for Bologne. Despite undeniable talent that even those who judge him by the color of his skin can’t deny, nothing can come easy, not even love.

Chevalier has been stylishly, energetically directed by Stephen Williams from a sharp screenplay by Stephani Robinson. Outstanding cinematography and production design help to immerse you in the period setting. From beginning to end, the movie tells a stirring tale with contemporary relevance, despite taking place in the 1700s. It’s massively entertaining as both a musical biopic and a romance.

out of four

Chevalier is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some strong language, suggestive material, and violence. The running time is 1 hour and 47 minutes.