Johan von Sydow • Director of Tiny Tim – King for a Day
“Tiny Tim could blend anywhere, even though he was so extreme”
by Marta Bałaga
- We talked to Swedish director Johan von Sydow about his documentary Tiny Tim – King for a Day and a man who didn’t belong on this Earth
Celebrating its world premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival, Johan von Sydow’s Tiny Tim – King for a Day [+see also:
interview: Johan von Sydow
film profile] (already set for theatrical distribution in Sweden and US in the autumn) shows the many highs and even more numerous lows of the singer Herbert Khaury aka Tiny Tim, forgotten by time but not by “Weird Al” Yankovic.
Cineuropa: When did you first discover Tiny Tim, or decided to introduce him to others? At one point while watching your film, I started to suspect it was a mockumentary.
Johan von Sydow: Can we start a rumour that it is? And that Tiny never really existed? I made a film about a Swedish artist [Nils Olof Bonnier] who disappeared in the 1960s. During our interview, one of his friends said that he loved Tiny Tim, and then started to laugh so hard he had tears in his eyes. I had to look him up. After two seconds, I went: “Who is this guy?!” At the same time, my friend and colleague Malik Bendjelloul was working on Searching for Sugar Man [+see also:
film profile]. I thought: “If he can tell a story about an American artist, so can I.” Soon after that, I met Justin Martell, who was writing his biography, Eternal Troubadour: The Improbable Life Of Tiny Tim.
The New York Times wrote that he “flirted, chastely, with fame.” It’s a story of someone making it, but not quite enough. It made me think of the Joker: after so much abuse, he was happy only when people clapped.
He needed the applause. Everybody says that. He needed to have an audience, even if it was one person. After reading his diaries, and he was writing almost every day, I can say that he was the craziest man to ever become a star. Although that’s offensive – he wasn’t “crazy”. But he had some kind of disorder and his parents wanted him in a psychiatric ward.
I think he understood quite early on that people were mocking him. But he was still getting attention, so it didn’t matter! They weren’t friendly, but any publicity was good publicity. We have this man, Johnny Pineapple, his friend during the last years of his life, saying: “He was the most intelligent man I have ever met.” He read a lot, knew a lot.
Funny you should mention Sugar Man, as you also talk about someone who remains an enigma.
Until the day he died, everyone would refer to him as an “ex-star,” always trying to make a comeback. But he was still happy, almost, about what he had achieved. He would say: “I had it once. Most people never get it.” At least in front of others, he seemed optimistic about it. It was only in his diaries that you could see all these dark thoughts. When he had white make-up on, long hair and sang in this falsetto voice, people thought he was a UFO! He couldn’t have come from planet Earth – he was so out there. And yet, in his diaries, he went: “One day, I will be the biggest star.” And he made it! It’s an amazing achievement.
“Think of me and the man on the moon,” as he sings?
That song was written by a guy who actually knew him. He was 36 years old when he had his breakthrough. I don’t think people knew that and he certainly didn’t talk about it. He didn’t want anyone to know he was that old, struggling for so long. But music was his life – he had been playing since he was a kid. And he had this need to be loved. If you have both of these things, you just have to succeed! There are so many “killed darlings” in the film. We could have turned it all into a freak show, but this is how people are: some are crazier than others, but they are still human beings. Someone said: “We are all individuals, but none more than Tiny Tim.”
And none more than “Weird Al” Yankovic, who ended up narrating the film.
We wanted someone who had a relationship with Tiny. We thought about Jim Carrey, as there were rumours he wanted to play him in a movie, we thought about Bob Dylan – we were very optimistic. With “Weird Al,” they acted together in some TV shows. People used to think he was his son! He told me that once, at a Ringo Starr concert in California, suddenly there was a spotlight on “Weird Al” and Ringo said: “We have a special guest tonight – Mr Tiny Tim!”
In one of my favourite stories, I asked Wavy Gravy, who was huge in the 1960s underground movement, if he knew about Tiny’s political views. “He was like us I guess,” he said. No, he was a right-wing hawk. Pro-Vietnam, he voted for Nixon. Tiny could blend anywhere, even though he was so extreme. He was religious and yet ambiguous about his sexuality, he had to explain everything to God. As he wrote in his diaries, that’s why he let the mafia manage his affairs. They kept an eye on him, so he wouldn’t just run off with some woman! He really was a tortured soul in that way.
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