The documentary makes a valiant (and not entirely successful) stab at contextualizing Tiny Tim, attempting to explain why he rose to such stratospheric heights, moving from the periphery straight into the heart of the mainstream, where he not only sold out Royal Albert Hall, but performed for 600,000 people at the Isle of Wight festival in 1970. How did a guy with a ukulele, a falsetto voice, and a jolly artificial 19th-century-music-hall persona pull that off?
Von Sydow has gathered together a host of interview subjects, from family members to collaborators, to filmmakers like Jonas Mekas and D.A. Pennebaker, all of whom reminisce about the performer’s meteoric rise (and equally meteoric fall). The film is peppered with excerpts from Tiny Tim’s occasionally tormented journal (voiced sensitively by “Weird Al” Yankovic), where the child of a Russian-Jewish father and a Lebanese-Christian mother—who threw him out of the house as a teenager—worries obsessively about sin, about Jesus, about Satan, and about his goals for himself. His ambition was titanic and visionary: “I will be a star,” he declared to his journal. Justin Martell, who wrote the 2016 biography, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life Of Tiny Tim, is the main tour guide of the documentary, walking us through each event: his troubled childhood, his love of Bing Crosby, his start as a street performer, and his novelty-act appeal to the burgeoning coffee club folk-house scene in Greenwich Village.
How did he develop his style? It was a real “act,” in the old-fashioned sense of the term. He was a throwback to vaudeville, to the 19th-century English music hall. (Trav SD.., author of No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, calls Tiny Tim “the Holy Saint of the neo-vaudeville movement”). Tiny Tim created a persona, and then lived it 24/7: he wore big boxy blazers, wide ties, and would shuffle onstage carrying a small bag in one hand, ukulele under his arm. When he blew kisses to the audience, the blown kisses seem affected, as though he were a bored monarch. Success, when it came, was gratifying to the ego part of him, and yet didn’t seem to make a difference in how he felt about life. One journal entry: “I am the biggest star in the country. O blessed Lord. My soul is crying for help.” He is referred to as “kind” and “vulnerable,” but some of the stories told here—of a sexual phone call with a 14-year-old girl, and his first conversation with his third and final wife (before they met, he asked her bluntly over the phone: “Are you attractive? Are you slim?” and then looked disappointed when they met in person) tells another story, one not really explored.
The rule-shattering era in which he rose was essential to his rise—could it have happened at any other time? Tiny Tim is unimaginable without the surrounding world of “Happenings” and flower-children dancing through the streets of Haight-Ashbury. “Tiny Tim: King for a Day” attempts to loop it all together, but footage of soldiers in Vietnam does little to explain why millions fell in love with a childlike man singing “Good Ship Lollipop.” He was often treated as a “freak” (in fact, his first regular gig was at what was then called a “freak show” in Times Square): people would come to gawk and laugh. Tiny Tim’s sexual ambiguity (his third wife, interviewed for the film, said she thought he was “half-gay”) had something to do with his notoriety, particularly at the start, although the claim made that he was “the first androgynous rock ‘n roll star” is debatable to the point of being ridiculous. Whatever the case may be, his eccentricity was cathartic for those drawn to him. John Lennon loved him. Bob Dylan wanted to make a movie with him. D.A. Pennebaker, filmmaker and frequent Dylan collaborator, was involved in the project. Nothing came of it, but the interest speaks volumes.