You’d think a figure who was documented by Andy Warhol, rubbed elbows with Bob Dylan and influenced David Bowie would be taken seriously as a pop music pioneer. Yet Herbert Butros Khaury, aka Tiny Tim, fought public perceptions and inner demons that led his undeniable charisma and talent to be dismissed as mere camp. A documentary profile should be the last to participate in the mockery that dogged Khaury’s career, and to some degree, director Johan von Sydow’s Tiny Tim: King for A Day celebrates his life and work. But sometimes the director clearly treats Tiny Tim like a Times Square freak, and that lack of respect is anathema to a documentary.

The film’s opening clip is typical of the conflicted approach. Black and white footage from a 1968 German television appearance depicts the eternal troubadour at his peak, cutting an unforgettable figure that at once epitomized the modern long-haired hippie and delivered an old-fashioned musical showmanship. But cutting to the interview segment, you see a quietly horrified expression on the face of the program’s stern host, Army Sergeant Bob Martin. It’s hilarious to watch Tiny Tim’s contemporaries dumfounded in the face of such an anachronistic and yet gently antagonistic character. But as King for Day continues, you begin to wonder if the filmmakers don’t side with Sergeant Martin.

And as can happen with documentaries (see – or please, don’t – the hideous animated recreations that ruin the otherwise well-produced Blue Note Records documentary It Must Schwing!), animated recreations send the entirely wrong message. With Weird Al Yankovic narrating, the film dramatizes passages from Khaury’s diaries in animated, black and white sequences. In the most egregious of these, Khaury is writing about Bobby Gonsalves, a childhood friend with whom he was infatuated. Gonsalves, an athletic youth, is drawn as a young boxer, throwing punches toward a giddy young Tim, beside himself with glee. If that’s a bit distasteful, at least it’s in keeping with Tim’s persona. But von Sydow goes even further: he tracked down Gonsalves, and filmed the now elderly man as he reads from Tim’s diaries from the first time. You see, young Bobby had no idea that Herbert Khoury was in love with him, and the revelation shocks him. It’s a cheap, appalling tabloid tactic.

The Gonsalves recreation and subsequent sting operation takes up barely a few minutes of screen time, but it sets a tone, which isn’t helped by the way the narration glosses over some of its subject’s accomplishments. One Tim fan naturally gives props to his bold and prescient blurring of male and female identity, and, there’s a telling music cue of Tim’s 1968 recording of the Biff Rose/Paul Williams song “Fill Your Heart.” You see, Tim recorded the song three years before Davie Bowie did on Hunky Dory, and for those in the know, this makes the case that Khaury’s fluid persona was a direct influence on Bowie’s androgyny. But von Sydow makes the reference without explaining it, which is fine for viewers well-versed in Tiny Tim and David Bowie, but it doesn’t make the argument for the casual observer.

That makes the audience for King for a Day the knowing insider; and that’s all the more reason why it’s so unsettling to see footage late in Tim’s career of him collapsing on stage. The filmmakers at least resist the urge to show Tim’s final and fatal stage appearance, but the build-up to that moment still feels like reality TV exploitation.

Long-time fans of Tiny Tim will be happy to see plenty of rare footage that depicts the singer in full bloom, but that joyous tone is offset by poor taste. Tiny Tim: King for a Day was “inspired” by 2016 biography Eternal Troubadour, and that book’s author Justin Martell appears here as a sincere champion. And Tim’s own sincerity shines through. But it’s hard to shake the sense that von Sydow really does see Tiny Tim as a sideshow act, and that makes this even more of a sad testament.

It’s hard to shake the sense that the director sees Tiny Tim as a sideshow act, and that makes this even more of a sad testament.
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Wasted Tulips

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