I first heard about Fyre Festival when it started to trend on social media in May of 2017. To those people in the know, this was the second time that the music festival had gone viral on Twitter and Instagram, and unlike the first time it was not a good thing. Like so many other people, I got a kick out of the schadenfreude of laughing at a bunch of rich kids stuck in the Bahamas at a music festival that had seemingly melted into chaos before it had even begun. It was cathartic to point and laugh at a bunch of vapid Influencers as they suffered for the sin of wanting to attend a music festival. In the aftermath, I might’ve even read about the festival’s promoters being sued by disenfranchised guests for false advertising. I was pretty much certain that I would never think about Fyre Festival again. Right now, I’m really happy to be proven wrong…
Fyre (subtitled the Greatest Party that Never Happened) is a documentary directed by Chris Smith, produced in part by Vice News and distributed by Netflix. It’s a no-frills production that immediately sets about asking two questions about Fyre Festival: how and why. On one hand, the film looks into the logistics and mechanics of establishing a music festival from scratch. On the other, we get an in-depth character study of the men and women who deluded themselves into thinking that said festival was both doable and revolutionary.
If the film can be said to have a “protagonist,” it’s Billy MacFarland. In 2017, MacFarland was a New York-based entrepreneur wunderkind who’d made his first fortune on an exclusive credit card called Magnises. MacFarland is initially portrayed as a marketing genius who exudes a sort of dorky charm. The success of Magnises was based off of the card’s exclusivity and the high-class perks that members received. Magnises wasn’t just selling a card, they were selling the idea of a life style. Those perks are important too, because through them, MacFarland came into contact with singer and songwriter Ja Rule (real name: Jeffery Atkins). For whatever reason, MacFarland and Ja Rule really hit it off and eventually went into business together. Their idea was to create an app that would allow average, everyday folks the chance to meet and even book their favorite celebrities. The app would be called Fyre.
The documentary starts with the software development team for Fyre suggesting a music festival to advertise their upcoming app. MacFarland becomes enamored of the idea and runs with the concept. Eventually, he buys a small island in the Caribbean (specifically in the chain of islands called the Exumas) and sets about building buzz for the fledgling Fyre Festival. To do so, he invites some of the most famous models and Influencers in the world to the newly bought island. He also hires the marketing agency Jerry Media, ostensibly to film a commercial. The result was less of a film shoot and more hedonistic party with cameras and incredibly beautiful women. This debauchery would form the seed of Fyre Festival’s hook and its downfall. As MacFarland himself explains, the Festival was selling the idea of a glamorous VIP experience to average Americans. That said, the models were paid an exorbitant amount to simply tag their photos from what was essentially a paid vacation with the hashtags for the event.
I’ll stop with the play-by-play at this point. From here the documentary focuses on the various technicians, consultants, and event planners who set about building the festival. This part of the documentary has an almost oppressive tone. There’s a sense of impending doom as mismanagement, and deluded optimism crash up against an unending barrage of complications. I love stories where systems and technical know-how intersect with human drama and Fyre is no exception.
You don’t find yourself rooting for these people to succeed, many of them (especially MacFarland and Ja Rule) exude this smug sense of inherent success. But you begin to empathize with the men and women on the ground level, working on the nitty-gritty details. These were professionals, experts in their fields, who worked their asses off to fight against the never-ending tide of complications. In particular, I sympathized with Keith, a pilot and logistics expert who is one of the first people to voice concerns. As he says, he can’t be excited about selling out the festival, he’s worried about plumbing and toilets for 1000 guests on a deserted island. Keith is one of the first people let go from planning due to his pragmatic warnings. And that’s all before we even meet the Bahamian locals who helped build the festival.
When I first heard about Fyre Festival, I considered to it to be a crime with no victim. Sure, these dumb Millennials had essentially been conned out of their money (I didn’t realize just how much at the time), but anyone who could afford an island vacation can afford to lose some cash, right? In truth, Fyre focuses very little on the vast majority of the guests. The portion of the film that actually focuses on the guests and their miserable experience is relatively short. It’s a brief digression, fitting because the Festival was officially cancelled before most of the guests had even arrived.
Instead, by focusing on the build up and the aftermath of the festival, the documentary is able to highlight those who were hurt the most by the disaster. Remember how the entire point of Fyre Festival was to promote the titular app? The software team, who had been explicitly kept at arms length during the planning of the event, were essentially fired because of the festival’s abject failure. In fact, the film goes to great lengths to establish that they weren’t laid off (which would allow the team to apply for unemployment benefits) but instead, they were told that they simply weren’t employed anymore. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Throughout the early chapters of the Fyre Festival saga, Billy MacFarland is portrayed as having a unique knack for fundraising. Nobody’s really sure where the money is coming from, but it seems like there’s always more. By the end of the story, he’s more akin to a horror movie villain, a magnetic and almost cult-like figure with an uncanny aptitude for separating money from wallets. I won’t spoil the truth of the matter but sufficed to say that nobody got paid for their efforts on Fyre Festival.
This fact is really rammed home with a focus on the Bahamian locals who built the festival site and provided essential services like catering. The women in charge of the restaurant that catered the event in particular comes off as especially sympathetic. Unable to pay her staff what they were owed, she shelled out 50,000 dollars of her own money to ensure that they were compensated. The heartbreak in her voice is palpable.
All the interviews are presented as effectively. Every interviewee is shot from the same front-facing angle, though a few of the more frequent commentators do alternate between a medium shot and a closeup on occasion. I’m no expert on cinematography but the presentation reinforces the interviewees as being normal and empathetic. It’s worth noting that many of the most senior organizers aren’t interviewed, including MacFarland and partner Ja Rule. In brief, Fyre is a highly effective document that does its best to evoke empathy for those involved. Which is why it’s such a shame that as a documentary, the film is inherently compromised…
Remember how I said the movie was produced in part by Vice News? Vice partnered with Jerry Media, the company that was initially hired to promote the Festival. Jerry worked closely with Matte Productions to create the documentary. So it’s worth noting that both companies are party to the storm of lawsuits that erupted following the festival’s collapse. Jerry Media is part of a class action lawsuit for false advertising, among other legal troubles. In addition, the documentary presents the employees of these companies in a positive light. These advertisers are portrayed as hapless every-man types who bore witness to the utter madness around them. They even try to absolve themselves of any blame. As one producer argues, the real Fyre Festival did happen (arguably), it was the grand party that they filmed for the first commercials.
The film crew even tries to shirk any directing responsibility, suggesting that the filming was mostly a chaotic point and shoot affair. Despite having a professional director on hand, MacFarland and Ja Rule were given total control, or so we’re given to believe. These misgivings begin to ring false when the film decides to put an extra microscope over the actions of the (all female) models and influencers who flew out for the shoot. Jerry Media and Matte Productions? They were just a bunch of dudes doing their best in a crazy situation? But the professional models? Well, clearly they need to be more careful about disclosing what is and isn’t an advertisement in this digital age. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is misogynistic but the blame isn’t not there, if you understand my meaning.
It’s a shame because Fyre is my favorite kind of true drama. It’s a story about pride and delusion, where any number of people could’ve been “That Guy,” and stopped the whole production as it careened out of control. But whether because of Billy MacFarland’s bizarre charisma, or everyone else’s misplaced optimism, nobody every spoke up. A lot of the interviewees admit that they probably could’ve done more to stop the fiasco but it’s hard to sympathize when the archive footage shows them being so brazenly inept.
There’s actually another documentary about Fyre Festival available on Hulu. I haven’t seen it yet (though I might try and visit it if I can take advantage of a Free Month on Hulu), but apparently it asks completely different questions. Where Fyre focuses on the systems that failed to create the event, Fyre Fraud instead asks what kind of culture could create such a charade. What kind of idiots would be so gullible to be conned out of their money like that? Fyre is a much more cynical production I think. Watching it is like uncovering the black box in the aftermath of a plane crash and then waiting for the survivors to assign blame. It’s more about the personal failings of those involved. By keeping that focus, it’s a fascinating (though not unbiased) story.
Fyre is currently available for streaming through Netflix.