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'Bohemian Rhapsody' focuses renewed interest in Freddie Mercury, Queen

Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in

Rami Malek as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody." Credit: Twentieth Century Fox/Alex Bailey

With the release of “Bohemian Rhapsody” just days away, lifelong Queen fan Sarah Battaglia has her weekend all planned out: Along with a couple of friends, she’ll see the film at the Regal Ronkonkoma where she already holds tickets, then grab dinner before heading to the Patchogue Theatre for The Ultimate Queen Celebration, a live tribute band fronted by Marc Martel.

“I’m so excited to see the movie,” says Battaglia, 55, of Rocky Point, who recently returned from the 33rd annual Queen Convention in England and works as an admissions adviser at Stony Brook University, where a Queen calendar hangs in her office. “Everybody who knows me,” she says, “associates me with Queen.”

Battaglia is one of countless fans awaiting the Nov. 2 release of “Bohemian Rhapsody,” starring Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury. The biopic traces Mercury’s rise from working-class son of Parsi immigrants — he was born   Farrokh Bulsara  in Zanzibar — to international superstar during the 1970s and ‘80s. Mercury chose his stage-name well: As one of glam-rock’s most flamboyant frontmen, he nevertheless dodged questions about his sexuality throughout his career, even up to the day he publicly revealed his diagnosis of AIDS in November 1991. Mercury died a little more than 24 hours after making his statement, leaving behind a complicated legacy of classic-rock heroism and barely-coded homoeroticism.

“Freddie could do what he wanted in the way he wanted, without ever having to admit anything,” says Martin Aston, author of “Breaking Down the Walls of Heartache: How Music Came Out.” “He was a legend and an incredible frontman.”

Queen remains one of the more improbable British acts to conquer suburban America. Established at the dawn of the 1970s, Queen consisted of aspiring astrophysicist Brian May on guitar, former dentistry student Roger Taylor on drums, trained electronics engineer John Deacon on bass and Mercury, a macho-yet-campy frontman with an impossible overbite and commanding voice. Riding the androgynous glam-rock wave spearheaded by David Bowie and Elton John, Queen released their eponymous debut album in 1973 and “Queen II” in 1974, both of which went gold in the UK and the United States.

At the time, “Everybody was into Yes and the Grateful Dead and Led Zeppelin,” recalls Keith Nutting, the WBAB drive-time DJ known as Fingers, who attended Alfred G. Berner High School in Massapequa. “The thing about Queen that was so exciting was the way they took classical music and rock and roll, and the stuff they did in the studio. It was just a game-changer for your ears.”

Worldwide fame wouldn’t come for the band until 1975’s “A Night at the Opera,” a lavishly produced album that featured “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Placed near the tail end of Side Two, the track was a six-minute operetta that opened with a tragic piano ballad — “Mama, just killed a man,” Mercury sang — then moved into a keening solo from May, an Italian-language call-and-response chorus, a head-banging rock passage and ended with — what else? — a gong.

Against expectations, “Bohemian Rhapsody” became a monster hit, an international chart-topper that turned Queen into household name. Along with Led Zeppelin’s epic-length “Stairway to Heaven” and Eagles’ narrative-driven “Hotel California,” Queen’s operatic opus would become shorthand for the whole genre of classic rock. When Mike Myers featured “Bohemian Rhapsody” in his rock-culture spoof “Wayne’s World” more than 15 years later, the song jumped back into the U.S. charts at No. 2. (Myers has a small role in the new film as a hidebound record executive.)

Queen’s popularity continued through the 1970s and early 1980s with such hits as “We Will Rock You,” “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Radio Ga Ga” (reportedly the inspiration for Lady Gaga’s stage-name). Meanwhile, Mercury stage-wear seemed to send fairly clear sexual signals: lame jumpsuits, candy-striped short-shorts, leather biker gear. Somehow, though, few audiences connected any dots until 1984, when a video for the single “I Want to Break Free” showed Mercury and his bandmates dressed as women. It created a minor furor and was banned by MTV.

“I must have been either naive or just plain stupid,” Fingers says in retrospect. “I never even associated Queen with a double entendre.” He adds: “That video, though — that was the nail in the coffin.”

Queen rebounded with a galvanizing appearance at Wembley Stadium for the 1985 Live Aid concert — a show that would become, according to one BBC poll 20 years later, the greatest live rock performance of all time. Within a few years, however, Mercury was looking visibly gaunt and frail. He died of bronchial pneumonia, a complication of AIDS, on Nov. 24, 1991, at the age of 45.

On stage and on record, “What Freddie was doing was giving permission to people to be themselves,” Aston says. “No, he was never out. And he didn’t reveal that he had AIDS until the day before he died. But I would say, to a closeted boy in his teens at the time, Freddie was saying: ‘If I can do this, you can do this.”

Correction: Freddie Mercury's birth name was misspelled in an earlier version.

The glam-rock icons Queen played Nassau Coliseum just twice, in 1977 and 1978, according to the fan website QueenConcerts. The band was then at the height of its powers, riding a wave of popularity thanks to “We Will Rock You” and “We are the Champions,” two arena-ready hits in 1977, and “Fat Bottomed Girls,” a saucy single from 1978. Reportedly, bands were sometimes filmed at the Coliseum then, and Queen would seem to be a likely candidate.

“They had such a great act,” says Bill Shelley, the Freeport-based collector and preservationist who runs Shelley Archives. "Between the costumes and the staging, and the lighting and the performing, they were just one of the most visual acts ever.”

So... where’s the Nassau Coliseum footage of Queen?

The promotional video for the band’s single “Tie Your Mother Down” was reportedly taken from the 1977 show — which suggests there might be more. Photos and reports from other tour stops that year describe a show well worth capturing. The Washington Post, for instance, wrote that the band played beneath a silver-and-black crown measuring 20 by 54 by 46 feet.

“I just remember crying,” says Sarah Battaglia, now of Rocky Point, who attended the Coliseum show with her father (they lived in Sound Beach at the time). Watching through binoculars from a nearly top-tear seat, she recalls, “I was like, ‘Why can’t I be in the front row? Those people don’t love Freddie as much as I do.’”

Shelley says that as a teenager he knew a custodian who worked at the Coliseum and sometimes spoke of concerts being filmed there. Later, in his archival work, Shelley would hear bands recall that they were filmed on the Coliseum on stage. As the venue readied for its 2015 closing and renovation, Shelley spoke to staffers about possible storage spots for concert footage — to no avail. Leads to other locales likewise turned up nothing. There is some footage of Queen’s 1977 Coliseum show available on YouTube, but the low angle and poor lighting suggest it was taken by an audience member.

“I do remember seeing them in ‘77. I remember Freddie was pushed around on a piano while singing on top of it,” Shelley says. “I’d love to see that on film.”


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