If the name Herbert Butros Khaury doesn’t ring a bell, fear not: the Manhattan-born musician popular in the 1960s and 1970s was best known by his stage name, Tiny Tim. At Johan von Sydow’s Tiny Tim: King for a Day, Khaury’s life, work and notoriety are chronicled through archival footage, interviews with surviving friends and relationships (Khaury died in 1996), and black and white animations that highlight the trauma and the tragedy from which the musician used his art and fame to escape. At around an hour and 20 minutes, there’s not much to this biographical documentary, but there’s more than enough to honor this quirky artist’s legacy and his lasting impact on American pop culture.
“Weird Al” says Yankovic King for a day, reading Khaury’s personal diaries he kept as a young man calling his family life a roller coaster as a child of immigrant parents, a Jewish mother and a Catholic father. The family struggled to cope, and his parents didn’t always appreciate Khaury’s eccentricities or talents; more than once, Yankovic reads Khaury’s own account of being kicked out of the house or being confronted by an angry and abusive father. It’s certainly understandable that young Khaury, like so many before and after him, turned to his music to protect himself from a rocky family life and uncertain future. A largely self-taught musician, he began playing the guitar at the age of six.
For someone who wasn’t around in Tiny Tim’s heyday, the most surprising part of von Sydow’s documentary is how much of the time the performer has been for several years in a row. An appearance in “Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-in” in 1968 catapulted the falsetto-voiced ukulele player to nationwide acclaim, audiences mesmerized by his eerie character and unique musical style. He became a regular on “The Tonight Show”, even going so far as to get married on the show, a show in every sense of the word. Apparently still the accomplished performer, Tiny Tim was always ‘on’ when he needed to be, enjoying the fame and attention so much that, even though he was the butt of the joke, all that mattered was he is in the room. Far from the mainstream kind of asshole on movie screens at the time, he was nonetheless a talented musician who chose to embrace his quirks and quirks in order to create a memorable and entertaining character.
Von Sydow mostly glosses over some of the more questionable aspects of Tiny Tim’s fame and the resulting encounters and relationships. “Miss Vicki,” the woman he married on “The Tonight Show” was actually just a teenager, ranging from 17 to 37 for Tiny Tim. He was estranged from his only daughter, born with Vicki, and his subsequent relationships were apparently also with very young women; his wife at the time of his death (from a heart attack) was “Miss Sue,” a woman he met as a teenager and she sent him adoring fan mail. Which is perhaps the most confusing part of Tiny Tim’s life story, that even in (or maybe because of) all of his quirk, he’s always attracted such a loyal and dedicated audience, their testimony to his now preserved influence on the film.
Tiny Tim: King for a Day is now showing in virtual theaters, including with Music Box Theater.
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