Hulu beats Netflix to the Fyre Festival punch with the release of ‘Fyre Fraud,’ a compelling but odd documentary
A review of the new film, on Hulu now
This Friday, Netflix will be releasing a documentary about the April 2017 collapse of Fyre Festival, a rich-kids-only music festival that promised access to ultra-famous influencers and models, performances by A-list music talent, luxury accommodations, private jets, yacht rides, etc., but then fizzled in a fit of post-apocalyptic late-capitalist social-media-saturated anguish. Netflix’s documentary is simply called Fyre. This morning, though, right as Netflix’s review embargo was lifted, and as the Internet was captivated by the schadenfreude of Instagram “celebrity” Caroline Calloway’s “creativity-tour” collapsing around her, Hulu surprise-released their own competing documentary, the much-more-SEO-friendly Fyre Fraud.
To recap: back in late 2016 and early 2017, as the country was reeling from the election of noted scammer Donald Trump to the White House, popular social media feeds from people like Kendall Jenner, Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Bieber née Baldwin, the Hadid sisters, etc. began promoting a super-exclusive, super-swanky-looking music festival called Fyre Festival, co-founded by rapper Ja Rule. The festival was meant to take place on a private island “once owned by Pablo Escobar” in the Bahamas, and attendees were meant to be treated to performances by blink-182, Major Lazer, Lil Yachty, Migos, and more. Instead, they arrived to find FEMA tents, no models, no music talent, stacks of mattresses, and “luxury cuisine” that looked like this:
Of course, the plight of the poor little rich kids tweeting about being trapped on an island hell of their own making went mega-viral, turning Fyre Festival into a punchline for late-night comedians and a convenient shorthand for any Instagram-influencer-peddled scam that was obvious to those of us who can’t afford to drop $200,000 on tickets to go hang out with Chanel Iman.
Now, almost two years later, we have two competing documentaries about the fiasco out within days of each other. While Netflix’s documentary (which I haven’t seen yet) is co-produced by Jerry Media, aka fuckjerry, aka the social media company that was contracted to promote Fyre Festival, Fyre Fraud boasts an exclusive interview with the con man behind it all, Billy McFarland. I have no idea why he agreed to participate in this documentary. The man is evidently delusional, but how could he have thought this would have gone well for him? How did his LAWYERS let him!? He was obviously interviewed before he was sentenced to six years in jail for wire fraud and other banking crimes, but seriously, he had to have known that was coming! [UPDATE: Since writing, The Ringer has broken the news that Billy McFarland was paid an undisclosed amount of money to appear in the documentary. Yikes, Hulu! Yikes!]
The interview is compelling enough, and honestly, I’m fascinated enough by the whole situation (it’s so uniquely millennial! our fascination with it all so post-Trump!) that I would watch just about anything about it that anyone wants to put in front of my eyeballs. Fyre Fraud is an engaging enough watch, so much so that it masks some strange structural issues with the film, some odd production choices that I couldn’t quite get on board with.
For example, long stretches of the film are almost like a documentary constructed by way of reaction gif. At a pivotal moment, with contractors unpaid and legal troubles mounting, someone says “Billy was running out of money” and we see this:
Plenty of documentaries use cutesy archive footage like this, but the tone just doesn’t match. This isn’t really a documentary about media, so having a clip of Bart Simpson unrolling stocks from a wall toilet-paper-style undercuts discussion of Billy McFarland’s very serious financial crimes. There’s a point where someone compares Billy’s company to Entertainment 7Twenty, Tom Haverford’s lifestyle-as-business venture from Parks and Rec, and we see a clip from the show, but the film never contextualizes Entertainment 7Twenty as a Parks and Rec reference. We’re just expected to all be conversant in Parks and Rec jokes. (Which I am, but still).
Lots of the of internal company emails described by some of the talking head interviews seem to have been recreated rather than shown verbatim, as in a typical documentary, but not explicitly marked as such. And, there are numerous points where things like court briefings, emails, letters, etc. are read aloud, but instead of having voice actors narrate, the film chooses to have what sounds like an early-90s text-to-speech program vocalize them instead. This leads to clunky, unintentionally-funny scenes like where a female-sounding robotic voice intones, “I am Billy McFarland’s mother, and there is much that I would like you to know about my son,” overtop of this photo:
Before it gets to the actual festival, Fyre Fraud spends almost an hour of its runtime setting up the backstory. We hear from a lot of experts about what millennials are and what the common stereotypes about millennials are, like that millennials just love the internet and hate feeling left out and live with our parents and are easily susceptible to scams. We also learn a lot about Billy McFarland, from his crayon-fixing business in second grade, to a web-hosting company he ran in fifth grade, to his “Magnises” credit card company, to his partnership with Ja Rule that eventually led to Fyre Festival. The film is at its best around the one-hour mark, as McFarland’s Fyre Festival preparations spiral out of control and his staff finds everything snowballing toward the arrival of the first influencers on the island; their archive footage, talking heads, editing, and music all come together to create a really gripping centerpiece.
But then, almost as soon as the hordes of rich people arrive on the island and find everything to be a disaster, they’re off again, and we’re on to the aftermath. Unlike Youtuber Shane Dawson’s excellent docuseries about another recent influencer-fueled catastrophe, “The Truth About Tanacon,” which was a dizzying assemblage of footage of the disaster from every conceivable angle, culled from the thousands of attendees obsessively-documenting every sunburnt moment — released, might I add, mere days after the event — Fyre Fraud zeroes in on footage from primarily two influencers, Austin Mills and Alyssa Lynch, neither of whom I had ever heard of. Part of what made Fyre Festival go so massively viral was the fact that everyone attending was thoroughly addicted to social media, so we at home got minute-by-minute images, videos, audio recordings, and other updates from the island, but instead of using all of that footage to craft a fuller picture of that night in the tents, this documentary dips in to the madness and right back out again.
After that section, it’s back to more information on what Billy McFarland has been up to since the failed festival. It’s clear by the end that this film isn’t so much about the festival itself as the con man behind it all (hinted at, I suppose, by the title of the film itself). That’s all fine and good, but it seems odd to start by describing the culture-at-large that produced the social conditions that led to the festival, and end by condemning Billy as a liar and a scammer who loves robbery and fraud. I am interested in how it might have worked in reverse — focusing on the festival and the man who failed to pull off his scam, and then pulling back to investigate the social reasons why any of this might have worked in the first place. I think our fascination with this does have something to do with how quickly it happened after Trump’s inauguration. I’m not sure if we needed that context before the film described what actually happened.
I’ve read a few reviews of Netflix’s Fyre that suggest it’s more of a minute-by-minute recounting of events and less of a condemnation of the scammer behind it all. And maybe that’s fine. After all the competition to get these documentaries out, it may turn out that they work best in conversation with each other, as complementary pieces that create a fuller picture of what exactly happened, and why we cared.
Despite coming out almost two years after the event, Fyre Fraud is a good start.