The slow-motion disaster of the Fyre Festival was one of the most compelling news stories of 2017. Internet schadenfreude ran wild as hundreds of bikini-clad influencers descended upon an island in the Bahamas for an event sold as a near-parodic manifestation of opulent quasi-celebrity, communicated through Instagram filters. The actual festival turned out to be a dystopian parade of hastily pitched tents and limp cheese sandwiches that went deeply wrong – a sort of ‘Lord of the #Flies’.
Arriving just a few days after a competing documentary on Hulu – only available in the USA – Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is Netflix’s take on the remarkable fiasco. It’s told with a great deal of style and energy, distilling the complex anatomy of a cock-up into just over 90 minutes of brisk, mixed bag storytelling.
The movie’s protagonist is cyberspace Del Boy Billy McFarland, who wears the same, permanently arrogant smirk as his near-namesake Seth McFarlane. He’s established clearly as “one of the world’s greatest salesmen”, able to convince people that he’s capable of anything – like putting together a world-beating, hyper-luxury music festival in the middle of nowhere in just a couple of months. The movie casts McFarland as exactly what he is – a scam artist, thinking only of how to squeeze the most cash out of any given situation.
It’s a very linear documentary, tracing the genesis of Fyre Festival before moving into the chaotic planning stage, which shifted in a matter of weeks from one of the most successful examples of influencer-driven marketing ever to a calamity of errors that included losing their island location and overselling their wildly ambitious luxury villa accommodation. Key figures from within Fyre, as well as festival attendees, share their disbelief at how they were all swept up in McFarland’s utopian vision, despite the fact it never looked achievable.
There’s so much material here that the documentary, as entertaining as it often is, feels exceptionally over-stuffed. It flirts with a number of interesting deeper themes, from the schadenfreude with which the rest of the internet treated these pampered rich kids as they scuffled for toilet roll and drinking water to the impact of the festival’s failure on the Bahamian locals. The tearful account of caterer Maryann Rolle, who plunged her own life savings into the event, has inspired viewers to donate more than £60,000 to a crowdfunding page at the time of writing. As compelling as these flashes are, director Chris Smith skims past them out of a desire to touch every base.
The most intriguing elements of Fyre are the moments when it turns its gaze upon influencer culture as a whole. There are questions raised about how much responsibility influencers have about the brands they take money to promote, which seems like a topic that merits further exploration. The festival itself is described as becoming “barbaric” as a “looting mentality” took over, which is just about the most scathing microcosm of rich, young millennial entitlement that it’s possible to imagine.
McFarland, too, is perhaps a figure worthy of more analysis than this particular documentary has time to give him. The Fyre Festival is unambiguously his brainchild and it’s he who is now serving a prison term for the various fraudulent activities surrounding his business interests. The ways in which he messed up this event are fairly well-known, but a late in the day turn into investigating a new business venture with links to members of US politician Chuck Schumer’s team made me sit up and pay attention again, before this thread dissolved into the ether.
As an exercise in pointing and laughing at a dudebro businessman and his fall from grace, Fyre certainly works. For anyone who somehow missed the story when it first broke, this is an exhaustive and detailed account of exactly what went wrong and who was behind it, directed with considerable style by Smith. Unfortunately, though, it fails to examine the wider significance of what happened and what it suggests about our modern world.
Instead, it’s merely a straightforward depiction of what one talking head rather eloquently describes as “an elephant of a clusterfuck”. It’s hard to disagree with him.
Dir: Chris Smith
Cast: Billy McFarland, Ja Rule, Andy King, Marc Weinstein, Mary Ann Rolle, Grant Margolin
Prd: Chris Smith, Danny Gabai, Mick Purzycki
DOP: Jake Burghart, Cory Fraiman-Lott, Henry Zaballos
Run time: 97 mins
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is available now on Netflix.