FANTASIA 2020: The Last Temptation of Tiny Tim (King for a Day)

Review by: Geoff Arbuckle

From director Johan Von Sydow, we get a look into the diary and deeper, darker thoughts of the 60s and 70s phenomenon Herbert Butros Khaury, better known as Tiny Tim.  Tiny Tim: King for a Day is a haunting look at someone who generally presented as a tender soul and someone almost living in a dream world of love.  In the pages of his personal diary, read in the film by Weird Al Yankovic, a tortured soul stands revealed.

The journey of Khaury starts off bizarre as we learn his mother was Jewish and his father was from Lebanon – which was already culturally peculiar in those days.  He never truly received love from his parents, and was a different type of personality with awkward looks.  He eventually discovered music by first learning the violin and then the mandolin and ukulele.  He eventually left home and struggled at first to gain attention.

You see, Khaury played an outdated instrument in the time of pop and the rise of rock and roll.  He was also awkward looking.  He came off somewhat androgynous.  He also came off a little gay.  Add to all that his soprano and falsetto singing style, and he’d get laughed off street corners, have eggs and vegetables and various other items thrown at him – including slurs and insults.  But something odd happened…  He found his way to Greenwich Village and the counter-culture.  Soon, he was starting to find his true voice.

But where this becomes an interesting documentary isn’t the stuff we can find in cursory internet searches, but it’s that sad, dark diary read by Weird Al.  We learn stories about his deep faith in God and Jesus and how much he speaks to them in his writing.  There are entries about his bad relationship with his parents.  We also learn about some potentially homosexual feelings he had for a teenage friend of his – that his friend wasn’t aware of until the documentary was being made.

What makes these entries interesting is the element of doubt that some of the stories told may be fantasies and not realities.  I don’t doubt he had a contentious relationship with parents that were stern and maybe unwilling to show their feelings.  However, some of the stories told seem overly dramatic and brutal.  The entries about his childhood friend that he had romanticized feelings about seem unlikely to have happened exactly as he wrote them because that friend seemed to think the entries came from left field.  Whether or not the percentage of the truth being told in these writings register triple digits isn’t important.  The presentation of the entries is because it then is juxtaposed with these other accounts that open the door just a little bit to see that Tiny Tim had a great deal of room for fantasy.

I just found this very interesting when I would begin asking questions about what was real in his diary and what were fantasies and what were the true depths of his sadness, loneliness, and manic depression that drove him.  You can’t help but realize while watching this that he was a unique artist.  Like Warhol or Dylan, he had a particular, and peculiar, view of the world.  You can’t always explain everything that he does or what he was.  You just see this performer as something very unique.

What’s more, he seemed to live his life on his terms.  That’s both great and also something that can lead to some very difficult times.  He didn’t really find true love until the end of his life because he found someone somewhat off kilter who could understand him in kind.  His relationships seemed rough at best with his most famous love, Miss Vicki being the mother of his daughter, a child who didn’t exactly have many nice things to say about her father because of the stories her mother would tell her growing up.  It seems his second marriage maybe only truly lasted a month before she might have run off with, of all people, Donald Trump.  There were even other stories that might, no matter his actions or true intent, paint him as something a little less innocent when it came to the age of some of his admirers.

While he seemed to struggle with familial and romantic love, the documentary made sure to shine as much spotlight as possible to those who truly loved him for this man who was living life as this near performance artist.  He had friends who truly thought of him as someone very special and interesting and worthy of attention and time.  There are several rough and crotchety record and TV producers who immediately see the tenderness of Tiny Tim’s act.  They realized he was more than just the freakshow some took him for.  Oh, and there’s the accounts that he was being managed and controlled by mobsters that likely were a very dangerous element in his orbit.

This is a dark, yet oddly very pleasant 75 minutes.  There are several places that could warrant deeper dives into the life of this strange man with the interesting, and fun, voice – which might be where you can look to the book that inspired this documentary, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life of Tiny Tim by Justin Martell and Alanna Wray McDonald, to pick up from here.  Whether it is his early life, or his time playing the clubs in Greenwich Village, or an exploration of his romances, or those lean years after his star had faded, there is a rich well to draw from.  Tiny Tim: King for a Day is enough for the viewer to continue to tiptoe through the tulips and fall down the waiting rabbit hole of the life of Herbert Butros Khaury.

Tiny Tim at the photo shoot for his album “God Bless Tiny Tim”
© 1978 Ed Thrasher

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