When Fyre Festival went down in flames in April of 2017, comedian Ron Funches was among the many who showed no sympathy for those who got scammed by Ja Rule’s failed music festival in the Bahamas: “If you have thousands of dollars to go on a trip to see Blink 182, that’s on you,” he told Conan. “That is Darwinism at its finest.”
That’s the kind of schadenfreude that ran rampant after someone at the fest tweeted a photo of the world’s saddest sandwich. When Netflix announced that it was releasing a documentary about the fiasco, everyone got giddy again, no doubt imagining footage of social-media influencers huddling for warmth, contemplating cannibalism, and breaking down sobbing over inadequate thread counts.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened hits Netflix Jan. 18, just days after today’s release of Fyre Fraud, a rival documentary, on Hulu. The Hulu doc, directed by Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst (Time: The Kalief Browder Story) benefits from access to Billy McFarland, who created the festival with Ja Rule. The Netflix doc, meanwhile, was produced in part by Jerry Media, the company that was hired to promote the festival.
Which one should you watch? Maybe both, depending on how often you can stomach seeing that revolting cheese sandwich.
If you’re in it to laugh at trustafarians having their trust violated, the Netflix doc doesn’t offer as much disaster-scene footage as you might expect. Instead director Chris Smith (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond) has created one of the best studies of a narcissism-driven shitshow since Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo. In that doc, director Werner Herzog completely ignored conventional wisdom as he tried to film on-location in the Amazon.
Just like Herzog, smirking entrepreneur Billy McFarland has utter faith in his vision as he conscripts hundreds of local workers— in this case, Bahamian day laborers who never got paid— into taming a forbidding terrain in a ridiculously inadequate amount of time. The difference, of course, is that Herzog somehow pulled it off and won Best Director at Cannes; McFarland failed spectacularly and was savaged on Twitter and sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Still, the parallels between the two projects are striking. At one point in Burden of Dreams, Herzog’s engineer resigns because he believes the director’s preferred method of getting a steamship over a ridge will likely get people killed. Herzog just proceeds without him. A similar fate befalls the project manager who tells McFarland that there aren’t adequate resources on Norman’s Cay, where the festival was originally going to be held (McFarland blew the deal by blabbing about how the island had supposedly once belonged to Pablo Escobar). After the project manager raises concerns about everything from plumbing to mosquitos, McFarland simply finds someone who can tell him what he wants to hear.
Though the filmmakers don’t get access to McFarland himself, they get a play-by-play from several Fyre employees, including a shell-shocked event producer who says McFarland talked him into blowing a customs officer for the release of truckloads of bottled water (lucky for him, he didn’t end up having to do the deed).
As you watch footage of McFarland—looking like a tubby Seth MacFarlane, drink in hand at all times, at one point passed out on the beach like a frat boy on spring break—you have to wonder how these employees had so much faith in him that they ignored all of the red flags. His business model seems to be Fake It Till You Make It and his charisma seems limited to a perpetual smirk and a connection to rapper Ja Rule. (Their favorite toast is captured on film: “Here’s to living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.”)
What really makes Fyre different from Burden of Dreams is that it takes place in 2017, when social media is capable of sparking mass hysteria. At one point, as McFarland creepily tries to convince some supermodels to go running into the water after him, he explains to them, “We’re selling a pipe dream to the average loser.”
Social media, of course, made it all too easy to sell that pipe dream. Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 to post about the festival, and those models who appeared in the promo video were reportedly offered $35,000 each for publicizing it. Tickets sold out quickly, because who wouldn’t pay $9,000 to be able to brag about being on #PabloEscobarsPrivateIsland?
Sure, there’s some pleasure in watching “influencers” and bottle-service bros get catfished into hanging out in a glorified refugee camp, but it quickly evaporates when you realize that some of these shameless selfie-seekers ended up winning $5 million in a lawsuit while a Bahamian restaurateur who made the mistake of catering for Fyre lost some $50,000 of her life savings. Not to mention everyone also who got, well, burned. (The FBI said that at least 80 investors ponied up more than $24 million, and 30 victims paid a total of $150,000 for tickets that were either never received or weren’t what they paid for.)
Though the makers of the Hulu documentary, Fyre Fraud, were able to interview McFarland, he declines to talk about ongoing criminal proceedings, so we get more insight into his previous ventures– a credit card billed as the “Amex Black Card for millennials” that morphed into a sort of poor man’s Soho House– than we do into his production of the festival. He does, at one point, try to explain why festival attendees who rented wildly expensive villas ended up having to scurry for tents. Whereas Fyre‘s sources say that the villas simply never existed, McFarland tells Fyre Fraud that $2 million worth of housing did exist but a box of keys went missing. So why didn’t he tell people that at the time? McFarland has no answer.
Much of the footage shown in Fyre Fraud overlaps with Fyre, and it’s somewhat annoyingly supplemented with clips from The Simpsons, Family Guy, and such. That said, the Hulu doc does manage to get some unique footage of, for instance, Chanel Iman falling into a boat as she tries not to get bitten by a pig (the festival’s promo video featured models frolicking on Pig Island). Unfortunately, the filmmakers’ rolodex leans a little too heavily on media commentators who feel the need to explain the concept of FOMO. (Let’s face it, you don’t watch a documentary about Fyre Festival to be informed that “the millennial understanding of the world has been shaped by extreme precarity.”)
Perhaps because of the participation of Jerry Media, the marketing firm that helped produce the festival and now the Netflix documentary, Fyre serves as a more riveting moment-by-moment portrayal of how the festival unfolded– and unraveled (a soundtrack heavy on tunes by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross doesn’t hurt, either). But one has to wonder if Jerry Media got off easy as a result. Netflix has said that “at no time did [Jerry Media], or any others we worked with, request favorable coverage in our film, which would be against our ethics.” But when Jerry Media CEO Mick Purzycki is interviewed, he doesn’t exactly get his feet held to the proverbial fire about his role in hyping the fest.
Fyre Fraud, on the other hand, ends with a former Jerry Media employee being asked a simple question: “Who’s guilty?”
He thinks for a minute and responds: “Everyone.”
Updated Jan. 14, 5:30pm: This post was originally published as a review of Fyre; upon the release of Fyre Fraud, it was revised to include both films.