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DIRECTED BY: Johan von Sydow
FEATURING: Tiny Tim,
PLOT: Johan von Sydow chronicles the improbable rise and unfortunate fall of ’60s icon Herbert Butros Khaury, aka “Tiny Tim”.
COMMENTS: Beginning and ending his career as a mere circus performer, Herbert Butros Khaury nonetheless hit it big—nay, hit it huge—as the nebulous singer and cultural icon “Tiny Tim.” Ukulele in hand and falsetto in throat, he captured the hearts of the American people for a few glorious years in the late ’60s through early ’70s. His first wedding garnered a viewership of between forty- and fifty-million people when broadcast live on “The Johnny Carson Show,” a record exceeded at the time only by the ratings for the lunar landing.
That fact and many others are courtesy of Johan von Sydow’s well-researched and rather moving documentary, Tiny Tim: King for a Day. Chronicling Herbert Khaury’s semi-tragic childhood, joyful period of success, and ending with his semi-tragic decline (both in popularity and in health), Tiny Tim is a very straight-forward film about one of the strangest popular phenomena of the 20th century. Herbert Khaury was one of those celebrities who are only ever “real” when on stage, and his private life was a cavalcade of sadness and discomfort as he tried and failed to tone himself down for mundane day-to-day activities like love, friendship, and business.
Most people know only the stage name of the man, and maybe his break-out hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I knew about him primarily through his board game, “The Tiny Tim Game of Beautiful Things.” But this performer was known by all kinds of big names. Influential television producer George Schlatter, documentarian D.A. Pennebaker, Tommy James (of “and the Shondells” fame), and Peter Yarrow (of Peter, Paul, & Mary) all had kind words to say about this strange, wonderful man. Even famous fringe artists Jonas Mekas and Wavy Gravy chime in at length—the latter providing an hilarious anecdote about the time he and a buddy saved Khaury from an encounter with the mob.
Tiny Tim: King for a Day is a “talking heads” kind of affair, but it is made novel in a couple of ways. Most strikingly, there are animated segments depicting experiences chronicled in Khaury’s personal diary (these are narrated impressively by none other than ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic, who I imagine leapt at the chance to be involved with this picture). They provide an intimate grounding of the man behind the persona. And von Sydow’s choice to avoid close-ups when recording the “talking heads” pays off handsomely, as you can see each of the commentators in their natural habitat. The contrast between executive Schattler’s organized award statues and “power desk” and Wavy Gravy’s obscenely cluttered study deftly illustrates the variety of Khaury’s friends and associates. The documentary is thorough, but short; appropriate, I feel, for a man known to the world as “Tiny Tim.”
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: