If the name Herbert Butros Khaury doesn’t ring a bell, fear not: the Manhattan-born musician popular in the 1960s and ’70s was better known by his stage name, Tiny Tim. In Johan von Sydow’s Tiny Tim: King for a Day, Khaury’s life, work and notoriety is chronicled through archival footage, interviews with surviving friends and relations (Khaury died in 1996) and stark black and white animations that bring to light the trauma and tragedy the musician used his art and fame to escape from. At just about 80 minutes, there isn’t much to this biographical documentary, but there is more than enough to honor this quirky performer’s legacy and lasting impact on American pop culture.
“Weird Al” Yankovic narrates King for a Day, reading from Khaury’s personal journals, which he kept as a young man processing his rollercoaster family life as the child of immigrant parents, a Jewish mother and Catholic father. The family struggled to get by, and his parents didn’t always appreciate Khaury’s eccentricities or talents; more than once, Yankovic reads out Khaury’s own account of being thrown out of the house or being confronted by an angry, abusive father. It’s certainly understandable that young Khaury, like so many before and after him, turned to his music for refuge from a rocky family life and an uncertain future. A largely self-taught musician, he began learning to play the guitar at as early as six years old.
For someone who wasn’t around during Tiny Tim’s heyday, the most surprising part of von Sydow’s documentary is just what a large part of the zeitgeist the performer was for quite a few years running. An appearance on “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” in 1968 catapulted the falsetto-voiced ukulele player to national fame, the public fascinated by his odd persona and unique musical style. He became a regular on “The Tonight Show,” even going so far as to get married on the show, a spectacle in every sense of the word. Apparently always the consummate performer, Tiny Tim was always “on” when he needed to be, relishing fame and attention so much that, even if he was the butt of the joke, all that mattered was that he was in the room. Far from the sort of mainstream heartthrob on movie screens at the time, he was nevertheless a talented musician who chose to embrace his oddities and peculiarities in order to create a memorable, entertaining persona.
Von Sydow mostly glosses over some of what might be the more questionable aspects of Tiny Tim’s fame and resulting encounters and relationships. “Miss Vicki,” the woman he married on “The Tonight Show” was actually only a teenager, just 17 years old to Tiny Tim’s 37 years. He was estranged from his only daughter, born with Vicki, and his later relationships were also apparently with very young women; his wife at the time of his death (from a heart attack) was “Miss Sue,” a woman he met when she was a teenager and she sent him adoring fan mail. Which is perhaps the most perplexing part of Tiny Tim’s life story, that even in (or perhaps because of) all his oddness, he still attracted such a loyal and dedicated following, their testament to his influence now preserved on film.
Tiny Tim: King for a Day is now streaming in virtual cinemas, including with Music Box Theatre.
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