2019 | unrated (R equivalent) | Documentary | directed by Chris Smith | 1 hr 37 min |
Once upon a time, a generation of parents wanted to be their kid’s best friend. They fought their battles at school, gave them participation trophies, didn’t tell them “no” and raised them on smart phones and internet message boards. Those kids in turn grew up to get worthless degrees, trade victim blaming as powerfully as currency and fall back on being paid to model products on Instagram. For a selfie-stick wielding generation of “Influencers”, The Fyre Festival, was their Vietnam.
That same environment gave birth to Billy McFarland – slick, sleazy, compulsive lying, huckster entrepreneur who rose to the New York penthouse lifestyle piggybacking on other people’s products. McFarland lacks any self-awareness or any doubt that he can’t achieve anything he wants. He climbed the social ladder with a service that let people hire celebrities for venues and founded Magnises, a company that produced a black stainless steel credit card intended to turn female heads with the clank it makes when you drop it on the table to pay. A small circle of acolytes claim McFarland is charming, enthusiastic, endlessly positive and determined, and that these qualities were seductive enough to inspire followers into one escapade after another – though none of these qualities seem evident in Chris Smith’s documentary Fyre. McFarland’s superpower seems simple blind determination, like a Mirror Universe Ethan Hunt.
Eventually, McFarland finally bit off more than he could chew. After hooking up with Ja Rule, McFarland decided to put on the world’s greatest music festival. Because everything with McFarland is about selling a lifestyle, the Fyre Festival was going to be a posh, exclusive getaway in the Bahamas (ostensibly in Pablo Escobar’s private island) where Influencers listened to live bands (like Blink-182?) and frolicked with super models under luxury cabanas. Once McFarland and his crew set foot on the island they are immediately beset with the basic logistics of putting on a music festival. What they thought would be sun, sand and models quickly turns into the unglamorous work of making sure people have water and toilets. Things start falling apart and bands all pull out while the Frye Festival’s own social media hype machine counts down the days until the fantasy and reality collide.
Smith uses new interviews and the plethora of smartphone footage documenting the event to put together this documentary. All of the attendees who would later complain how quickly people jumped to make fun of them had no problem documenting their humiliation for social media. Meals turned into cheese sandwiches and cabanas turned into mad dashes to fight over soiled mattresses in FEMA tents. Smith doesn’t have a single interview with McFarland though, instead he chronicles the downslide through the more easily relatable staff as they grow anxious over a project failing before their eyes. They either protest and get ignored or forge ahead on blind faith. Smith makes passing attempts to talk about social media culture, but surprisingly, he finds the real thrust of this drama is the pit-in-the-stomach slide of the employees dreading the arrival of disappointed millennial and the utter humiliation they all see coming.
The sheer amount of footage taking us on the ground and behind the scenes for this event is shocking. Including an interview where McFarland exploits a co-worker’s homosexuality to get palettes of water released by the government and a look behind the curtain at McFarland and Ja-Rule’s post-event boardroom in crisis management mode deciding on the most appropriate language to smooth this over.
Two documentaries about the Fyre Festival hit streaming media at the same time (alongside Hulu’s Fyre Fraud). I went for this one not as a Netflix bias, but a Chris Smith bias. The guy behind the cult-classic American Movie and who recently hit it out of the park with the Jim Carrey deconstruction Jim and Andy: The Great Beyond last year, Smith is on something of a roll. He puts this movie together dispassionately, without succumbing to the very easy temptation to judge the Fyre Festival guests (as I succumbed to in the first paragraph of this review) or editorialize against Billy McFarland himself, even as McFarland starts kicking these people when they are down, seemingly compulsively unable to stop scamming them. At a time when millennial documentaries lean toward either emotional arguments or turn inward to be about their makers, Smith’s approach to putting the story at the front is an increasing rarity – and the breakdown of the Fyre Festival is quite a story.