The Spool / Fantasia 2020
Fantasia 2020: “Tiny Tim: King for a Day” is a loving portrait in eccentricity
Johan von Sydow directs a touching, engaging documentary of a true one-of-a-kind performer.
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Johan von Sydow directs a touching, engaging documentary of a true one-of-a-kind performer.

(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Fantasia International Film Festival.)

The miracle of Tiny Tim (no, the other one) is that, despite his being dead for almost 25 years (and mostly considered a has-been long before he passed), the kids today still know vaguely who he is. That’s thanks to his music being featured in the pilot episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, when SpongeBob serves hungry Krusty Krab customers to the tune of “Livin’ in the Sunlight, Lovin’ in the Moonlight.” If you hear Tiny Tim’s strange, quavery falsetto even once, you’ll never forget it, and that’s before you even see what he looked like.

Johan von Sydow’s Tiny Tim: King for a Day is an affectionate (but also honest) look at a most unlikely star. Bolstered by Marko Mestrovic’s somber animation, and with Tim’s diaries read by Weird Al Yankovic, it paints a colorful, moving portrait of someone who found fame with a persona that seemed both from a different planet, and yet was completely authentic at the same time. Tiny Tim, born Herbert Khaury, escaped a lonely, abusive childhood through music, though his career didn’t take off until he began singing in that signature half-ethereal/half-brain splitting octave. According to his diaries, Tim simply woke up one day able to sing like that, and attributed it to God, with whom he had a complicated (to put it lightly) relationship.

Tim not only sounded weird, he looked weird, with a nose so prominent it inspired the design for Danny DeVito’s Penguin makeup in Batman Returns. On top of that, he acted weird too, coming off in interviews like an awkward, giggly child, even though he was in his 30s by the time he became a star. By all accounts, though, that’s who Tim was, both on-stage and off. There seemed to be nothing calculated or cynical about it. That he was warmly received by everyone from Johnny Carson to Bob Dylan, let alone that the world found him so intriguing that his marriage to “Miss Vicky” Budinger was at one point the second highest rated television event after the moon landing, is both heart-warming, and baffling. He was almost certainly a novelty and curiosity, but it certainly led to more acceptance and affection than he got from his parents.

Tiny Tim: King for a Day
Tiny Tim: King for a Day

As is often the case, sadly, fame did little to help Tiny Tim move past the pain of a dysfunctional childhood, parents who were unable to accept the strange space child they were given, a twisted view of sin and religion, and confusion over his sexuality. The speculation on Tim’s sexuality is limited to what can be discerned from his own personal writing, which recounted both a desire to be popular with girls, and an attraction to his closest male friend as a teenager. The easy answer would be to say that he was bisexual, before that term was commonly used, but in more likelihood he simply didn’t know, and struggled so much with the “sin” of having any kind of sexual feelings that he never allowed himself the opportunity to figure things out.

If you’re grimacing at the idea of “Tiny Tim” and “sexual feelings,” Tiny Tim: King for a Day might not be the documentary for you. While it can’t avoid focusing on what an oddball he was (even literally working the freak show circuit at various times in his career), it’s not meant in a mocking or even anthropological way. It’s simply a story of someone who would have normally remained a local curiosity at best, but found fame (fleeting as it was) at a time when audiences were eager for something different and “out there.” They didn’t get more “out there” than Tiny Tim.

The obvious question when watching Tiny Tim: King for a Day is if Tiny Tim could achieve the same kind of celebrity today. Given that, thanks to social media, we’re more appearance focused than ever before, it’s not very likely. If he did, it would be assumed that it’s all an act, a carefully crafted persona like comedian Neil Hamburger. Such eccentricities must be a put on, no one would actually be like that in real life. The question would be “Who is Tiny Tim?” because the answer simply couldn’t be exactly who he says he is. “People either got it, or they didn’t, that’s all,” Wavy Gravy says near the end of the film. “He was beautiful.”