Back in the sixties, Tiny Tim was one of the hottest tickets around. He played The Royal Albert Hall and entertained 600.000 people at the Isle of Wight. John Lennon and Bob Dylan gushed about him profusely. His live wedding on the Johnny Carson show remains one of the most-watched TV specials in history, only just behind the moon landing.
In 2021, I had never heard of him before this documentary. Before viewing it, I asked some more knowledgeable friends if they’d ever listened to his material. One faintly remembered the falsetto tones of yesteryear, but only just.
That alone makes for an interesting place to begin, as so much in Tiny Tim’s life revolves around his astronomical rise to fame and the inevitable fall that came much sooner than he’d have liked. Finding artistic success first in the “freak show,” then television, before returning back to the street corners and bars that knitted his bones, Tiny Tim experienced the microcosm of fame in all its ugliness in just two short decades.
This biographical documentary, King for a Day, directed by Johan Von Sydow, isn’t quite as successful in combining together these disparate elements of a confusing man, but it does make a valiant effort. At just under 80 minutes in length, it’s both exactly as long as it needs to be, but also too short to offer insight into the questions it feels compelled not to ask.
Tim, a wild-haired man who’d be at home in a Tim Burton movie and sings like a mix between Al Jolson and a deep-sea creature, defies expectation mostly because that’s how his friends and remaining family want it to be. Only in a brief moment do we see past the carefully cultivated image, where his widow and best friend remember his darker desires.
Born from a repressed and violent upbringing, these tendencies led him to find sex anywhere – and, sometimes, from anyone. “Just talking to a fourteen-year-old isn’t illegal, is it?” His widow asks. Before that, she suggests that Tim was “half gay,” but unable to express himself after years of abuse from his parents.
Is all that important in a portrait of an artist? Maybe not. But its handling here is clumsy, nonetheless. Equally distasteful is the moment when Sydow shows one of Tim’s objects of desire in his private diary and presses for a reaction over the deeply rooted affections that went unanswered.
These moments stand out because the rest of the film is so compassionate and empathetic. It refuses to pass judgment on Tim, even as we bear witness to his spiral into obscurity. Television, which once made him a star, turns against him. Instead of celebrating his oddity, it begins to feed on it, relegating the eager-to-please neo-vaudevillian to a sideshow once again.
There’s a deep sadness in seeing how quickly the highs of global affection disappear. Worse is realizing that technology gives us the tools to see Tim hit the bottom, not quite fatally, but close enough that it tears at the soul.
It’s here and in the mystery that King for a Day ultimately triumphs. The personal moments on stage, where we see the traumatized, deeply torn man find bliss in the love of strangers. It removes the mask and desperate ploys for attention and becomes a loving portrait of a misfit lured by tantalizing fame, haunted by his mental faculties, and driven by a desire to be liked.
More importantly, I now know who Tiny Tim was, at least partially, and I don’t think I’ll be able to forget him if I tried. If that’s not a vindication of some kind, I don’t know what is.