CINEMA: The Stranger


TINY TIM: KING FOR A DAY (dir. by Johan von Sydow, 78 minutes, USA, 2020)

BY DAN TABOR FILM CRITIC Growing up in a small town in rural Pennsylvania, situated just a stone’s throw from the Mason Dixon line, we didn’t get a lot of celebrities coming through our neck of the woods. In fact, in the ten plus years I lived there, the closest we got was an extra from 12 Monkeys — and Tiny Tim, who came through one year with the traveling circus. I was probably eight or nine at the time and I remember two things about that day. One was he did “Tiptoe Through the Tulips,” and to this day I have never again heard a sound like that come from a human being. Second thing was, well, you know how most people are terrified of clowns? Well, they haven’t seen Tiny Tim in full clown, singing in a high falsetto. It was a kind of surreal experience that has haunted/fascinated me since.

Johan von Sydow’s documentary King For A Day, based in part on Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life Of Tiny Tim, Justin Martell’s definitive tome on the eccentric musician, is a near-flawless bit of filmmakin that successfully liberates the man from the myth. Utilizing animation, the film begins with Tim’s humble beginnings as Herbert Butros Khaury, an awkward, androgynous Lebanese/Russian teenager living in 1940s Manhattan. Herbert didn’t seem to fit in anywhere, that is until he discovered his unconventional voice that would land him his first steady gig, literally singing in a circus midway Freak Show. The narrative steadily builds from there as we see Tiny’s rise to fame, through archival footage and talking heads, as the world becomes fascinated with this enigma of a man. Interviews with fans, friends and family are offset with excerpts from Tiny’s personal diaries to deliver Tiny’s take on a particular situation.

It’s this perspective that gives us a unique insight into the man as we experience, through his eyes, not only the dizzying heights he rose to in his life, with his marriage to his first wife, which was the second most watched TV event ever.  But the devastating lows that followed when America soon tired of Tiny, relegating him back to the circus, which is where I happened to discover him in my youth. This on its own would be more than a satisfactory narrative given Tiny basically dies right off camera after a live performance, but there’s much more to the story here. While most of us are familiar with this living curiosity, the film sheds some much needed light on Tiny’s musical career as the likes of Wavy Gravy, Tommy James, and the late Jonas Mekas extol the virtues of Tiny’s very distinctive sonic palette and his diverse catalog of recordings. This is brought full circle by our narrator, a surprisingly somber and restrained  “Weird Al” Yankovic.

Unlike Justin who penned the book, Johan wasn’t a fan of Tim before the film, which really rounds out the doc. He didn’t come to the project with any nostalgic baggage, he just wanted to tell this man’s story in the most subjective way possible. He does this by not only presenting the misunderstood, wistful genius you’d expect, but the complex womanizer as well, sometimes in painful detail. King for a Day is as much a thought provoking take on the precarious nature of celebrity as its the story of Tiny Tim’s tragic life. Johan never gets lost in the superficial weirdness of his subject, instead he makes sure every bit of interview, musical performance or photo further humanizes a man who for most of his life was reduced to nothing more than a freak show oddity in the twilight zone of inexplicable celebrity.