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Misfortune can be funny. Take that scandal par excellence from April 2017, the Fyre Festival. The vision of a spoiled, primarily white American millennial demographic sold a paradisiacal bill of goods proved overpoweringly hilarious to those of us for whom Fear of Missing Out (or FOMO) is a constant ailment.
Promoted as an exclusive, ridiculously upscale music fest staged on a remote island once owned by drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, Fyre turned out to be an inexpertly executed con job that still managed to attract a sizable number of people willing to drop five or more figures to party in the tropics with Blink-182. News outlets and social media reacted in kind, meaning not-so-kind, to retweets and Instagram stories of the young and well-off going temporarily tribal. It was respite for a country reeling from a divisive new presidency, the schadenfreude proving decidedly therapeutic.
Now come the post-mortems in the form of two competing documentaries: Chris Smith’s Fyre, distributed by Netflix, and Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst’s Fyre Fraud, a Hulu original dropped with little fanfare four days before the release of the former. They make for an often irresistible and provocative pairing.
Smith is no stranger to documenting acts of deception. His 1999 feature American Movie is the widely beloved tale of would-be indie auteur Mark Borchardt, whose passion for the feature he wants to finance is at once endearing and a repulsive put-on. Fyre Fest majordomo Billy McFarland is like Borchardt on steroids — fast-talking and frat boy-looking, an adrenal gland gifted sentience. Interestingly, there’s no newly captured footage of McFarland in Fyre (for that you have to go to Fyre Fraud, about which more below), since Smith wouldn’t agree to his demands for compensation.
That’s no detriment to the film, however, as McFarland seems to have had a compulsive need to be on camera before, during, and immediately after the Fyre Fest debacle, even hiring a crew to follow him around and document…him being him, I guess? So Smith constructs his McFarland from previously-photographed cloth.
We see him on set during the shooting of the now-infamous ad for Fyre Fest — promoted on Instagram by the likes of Kendall Jenner and Bella Hadid — in which comely models and social media influencers party on a sparkling-sand Bahama beach and swim in bluer-than-blue surf. We see him in the Manhattan Fyre offices, where his beaming smile mitigates his consistently bad ideas. Even after the festival turns into a dumpster-fire punchline and jail becomes a real possibility, there’s McFarland again, in self-imposed exile in a penthouse, masterminding a scheme via which he sells “tickets” to the easily duped for the Met Gala, Burning Man and Hamilton. Sen. Chuck Schumer’s press secretary is somehow involved in the plot.
The jaw is meant to and does often drop, and not just because of McFarland. Two words: Ja Rule. The hip-hop artist and public face of Fyre Fest is like the devoted Fool to McFarland’s man-child King Lear, blathering ready-made catchphrases (“living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, fucking like porn stars”) and gleefully repudiating ethics and accountability. During an all-hands Skype session, one of the Fyre employees sums up the festival’s many failures as “fraud.” Ja retorts: “No! … I would call that…false advertising.”
Another tale of woe comes courtesy consultant Marc Weinstein, whose desperate 11th-hour email about the fest’s likely collapse is met with a chipper reply from McFarland about the yoga instruction Weinstein has promised to provide. Though nothing beats event producer Andy King’s anecdote about his visit to a customs agent who refused to release bottles of fresh water that had been shipped in for attendees. On McFarland’s order, King was prepared to perform oral sex in order to secure release of the cargo.
Smith’s film doesn’t lack for dark humor. Yet there’s a mournful undercurrent that comes to the surface whenever he shifts focus to the residents of Great Exuma, the island (most certainly not owned by Escobar) where the fest was to be held. Many of the island’s poverty-stricken residents labored for days without pay. One restaurateur discusses how she liquidated most of her savings because of Fyre and has little hope she’ll ever see the money repaid. “Nobody died,” seems to be the takeaway for Fyre higher-ups. But some people still have to live in dire straits far beyond the inconvenience of that soggy cheese sandwich memorialized in a viral Tweet.
At this point, I should mention a curious detail: One of the production companies behind Fyre is Jerry Media, the rabble-rousing PR startup hired to promote…the Fyre Festival. (Whoopsie. And way to rehabilitate your brand, guys!) You wouldn’t know this watching Smith’s film, which tends to frame McFarland as sole scapegoat. The constant needle-dropping of tracks from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score for Gone Girl even emphasizes the extent to which Smith and his producers view McFarland as a whirl-winding, monomaniacal charlatan who is fascinating precisely because he pulled a seemingly solo ruse for a shockingly long period of time.
That approach often elides the bigger picture. McFarland had and still has plenty of enablers, as well as willing audiences either delighted to believe his bullshit or condemn him with moralistic certitude from atop online soapboxes. Smith’s film is the more viscerally satisfying for how it treats McFarland as a whipping boy. But Nason and Furst’s Fyre Fraud is a valuable companion piece for how it widens the scope, examining the ways in which Fyre Fest was born from the muck of lives lived virtually.
The Hulu film’s biggest draw is a new interview with McFarland himself, looking much gaunter, but coming off, in his every utterance, no less sociopathic. He’s capable of making “no comment” sound nefarious, and he speaks with glee of the first scheme he concocted in elementary school, using broken crayons like a card shark would a playing deck. McFarland even has a girlfriend, model Anastasia Eremenko, whom he appears to have seduced and cajoled into being his personal character witness. He’s a freak-show attraction, yet Nason and Furst are equally interested in putting this douche-bro bogeyman in context.
So we get comments from a psychologist who studies con men for a living, as well as pointed thoughts from reporters and social media experts on the pervasive culture of likes and shares. Oren Aks, who managed Fyre Fest’s social media presence, even blows an expletive-augmented raspberry at his former employers — and, as previously stated, co-producers of Netflix’s Fyre — Jerry Media, from which he was terminated after the fest went belly up.
The degree to which any of the people interviewed see themselves as part of the very problem they’re diagnosing is debatable. Also, given Jerry Media’s own dubious involvement in Fyre, one might rightly raise an eyebrow at the intentions, petty or otherwise, of Fyre Fraud’s primary producers — Hulu, Billboard and the financially beleaguered millennial news site Mic. Despite their somewhat opposed agendas, the weaknesses of both documentaries are comparable, stemming from a train-wreck fascination with the Fyre Festival and McFarland that is, perversely enough, the primary reason this story continues to compel.
Outrage feeds itself, in this case indefinitely, potentially in perpetuity. Fyre Festival was a colossal failure with an easy fall guy. The attempts to broaden the subject’s scope (via Fyre’s interviews with exploited Bahamian workers and Fyre Fraud’s corral-the-experts critique of social media) always bring us right back around to McFarland, a young man way out of his depth, and indulged, even now, well past the point of productivity. It’s easier to hoot and holler at a spoiled brat than grapple with, say, the implications of Aks’ assessment (not so shallow as it may seem) of the whole Fyre affair.
“Who’s guilty?” an interviewer asks him. Aks replies — sarcastically, cynically, chillingly — “Everyone.”
Fyre Fraud was co-produced by Billboard. Billboard and The Hollywood Reporter share a parent company, Valence Media.
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)
Production companies: Jerry Media, Library Films, Vice Studios
Executive producers: Gabrielle Bluestone, Brett Kincaid, James Ohliger, Max Pollack, Matthew Rowean, Elliot Tebele
Producers: Danny Gabai, Mick Purzycki, Chris Smith
Director-writer: Chris Smith
Cinematographers: Cory Fraiman-Lott, Henry Zaballos
Premiered: Tuesday (Hulu)
Production companies: Billboard, Mic
Executive producers: Michael Gasparro, Angela Freedman, Sharmi Gandhi, Dana Miller, Joanna Zwickel, Julia Willoughby Nason, Jenner Furst
Producer: Lana Barkin
Directors-writers: Julia Willoughby Nason, Jenner Furst
Editors: Devin Concannon, Megan Brennan, Matt Prinzing
Cinematographers: Jay Silver, Luca Del Puppo, Evan Jake Cohen
Music: Danielle Furst, Khari Mateen
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