by Ken Bakely
It seems like some kind of bizarrely fitting joke – the kind of of-course onslaught that seemed to mirror the source material’s surreal slew of events – that two documentaries about the ill-fated Fyre Festival would premiere the same week. Watched in tandem, the collective surrealism of their anecdotes presents a distorted, funhouse mirror effect of the combined input of social media advertising, a voyeuristic pleasure that many took in watching the affluent-millennial-aimed music festival crash and burn, and the delusions of grandeur that were behind the scheme in the first place. Both Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason’s Fyre Fraud, and Chris Smith’s Fyre, rightly paint the festival’s creator – venture capitalist Billy McFarland – as a con artist, but his actions are viewed differently in a broader spectrum, thus creating interesting fodder for how even the slightest changes in filmmaking approaches and access create radically different narratives. They present fascinatingly mounted investigations, but neither comes close to the sweeping conclusions that they aim for – though that’s not to say that they don’t each have their share of evocative achievements as they pursue their own ideologies, and have an odd synergy when taken together.
Smith’s film depicts McFarland’s history of compulsive lying and illicit business schemes as the center of an elaborate profile of an unhinged millionaire and a team of enablers wreaking havoc on the Bahamian island, in which local workers and merchants were left without recourse as the festival collapsed into chaos before any of the affluent guests had even flown in. When the guests – who were promised luxurious accommodations and numerous A-list musicians on the program – do arrive, they’re greeted by flimsy emergency management tents wet with rain, the news that every performer has cancelled, and infamously poor food. The film sees this as the conflation of a long line of terrible choices by a woefully unprepared organizer driven by his maniacal desire for money and power. Contemporary media profiles frequently compared the event itself to Lord of the Flies, but Fyre encourages parallels to the William Golding novel in the stunning behavior of the organizers. As it became clear that the event would be a disaster, and basic resources were unavailable, they asked an investor to bribe local authorities with sex so they could procure a single case of bottled water without paying an import fee. After the festival, when local businesspeople demanded payment for their extensive consultation efforts, the fragile leadership stiffed them while dropping any remaining semblance of cohesion, with one participant recalling jumping into the back of a passing truck so he could escape the situation.
Of course, the harshest descriptors are reserved for McFarland. He is not interviewed for Fyre, so Smith relies on archival footage and interviews of his former associates to construct the timeline. As a result, it’s depicted as a chronicle of pandemonium at all levels. Just about every action is traced to McFarland, painted as some unknowable soul who deceived the multitudes in a whirlwind of incompetence. Considering how much blame is piled onto a surface as comparatively small as possible, it’s not surprising to learn that the film was bankrolled by one of the media companies that promoted the festival, as if in a desparate effort to absolve their brand of any potential wrongdoing. It’s a narrative documentary that presents itself as snapshot-style history, with little context in either direction giving us much opportunity for external conclusions.
Contrast this with Fyre Fraud, which is all external conclusions and hardly anything else. It depicts the festival as primarily a product of its era: that of the late-2010s social media-dominated landscape when fast talking and sales pitches grow from oversized capitalistic greed to overwhelm every other aspect of society. Fyre Fest took place in April 2017, three months after the inauguration of a U.S. President who, as the movie reminds us, won an election based on a platform of aggressively sold lies. Thus, Furst and Nason argue, it’s natural that such a culture would also have Billy McFarland – another man known for building fame and fortune from wild displays of overconfidence and outrageous falsehoods (he once admitted that the name of one of his early businesses was based on a typo, as he didn’t know how to spell the word he wanted). He is frequently interviewed here, though his predicted evasiveness in answering questions seems to serve as augmentation of the film’s underlying theory all by itself – that his compulsive lying was adored by a world that embraced alternative facts as a marketing tool. Both Fyre and Fyre Fraud point out that much of the initial interest in the festival came from online celebrities unquestioningly marketing the event to their followers, though the films differ in whether this could be categorized as a specific sign of McFarland’s reach or an indication that selling such unfulfillable promises of an ecstatic getaway was easy to do in the first place, as long as the right people were peddling it.
Where Smith was laser-focused on individual actions and choices, Furst and Nason attempt to refocus the festival’s story as an example of how it represented the worst effects of both human greed and the performative internet culture that the twentysomethings who attended it have lived most of their lives within. Thus, the two movies represent vast differences in angling and dialectics. Even moreso, they begin to reveal each other’s flaws as separate productions. They drive their stakes into their own camps of perspective and analysis. They’re unable to expand beyond their own mindset. It’s an ironic flaw, given that their takeaways, when they do converge, both agree that Fyre’s failure was much more complicated than the common narrative suggests (that it was an underfunded debacle that merely sparked a week’s worth of Twitter memes). Opposingly, the nature of their release all but demands they be seen together. Though Fyre Fraud’s low-key Hulu release (dropped onto the platform four days before Netflix’s more ballyhooed Fyre entered the world) seemed like a direct rebuke of its rival, it’s astounding how soon everyone took up the mantle and promoted them as one collective experience.
The two movies leave us hanging. McFarland is in prison, and it’s unanimously predicted that upon his release, he will likely work to defraud people again (after all, he’s already given it another go). The Bahamian locals were never paid for their work. And nobody is really quite sure what this entire event means. It’s that kind of ambiguity that should serve as an ominous final note, but the documentaries’ polarized approaches apparently require them to circle everything back to their unpolished theses, thus making them both unsatisfying. Fyre is the better made movie from a technical standpoint, and Fyre Fraud is more vibrantly entertaining, but the lesson here might be that they need each other to feel like a remotely comprehensive work in the abstract. With micro and macro strategies combining in their respective corners, the decision to release these films at the same time may have lent them a value that would have otherwise been lost had they gone their separate ways. It’s clear that we’re still a long ways away from the “definitive” take on Fyre Festival, Billy McFarland, and the hypercommercial internet landscape. Yet this strange episode in instant streaming and competitive PR has produced a most unusual opportunity for comparative discussion.