Second Take: Failed Fyre Festival scrutinized in competing Hulu and Netflix documentaries
(Courtesy of Netflix)
Jan. 22, 2019 10:58 p.m.
This post was updated Jan. 24 at 12:36 p.m.
Fyre Festival was meant to be an escapist, immersive music festival in the Bahamas – instead, it turned into “Lord of the Flies” meets Instagram.
The failed music festival was such a compelling train wreck that both Hulu and Netflix released documentaries about it within days of each other. This begs a comparison between the two accounts. Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” seeks to unravel the psyche of Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland, while Netflix’s “Fyre” offers a more sweeping overview of the festival and those involved in the process. The two ultimately serve as complementary narratives that should be watched together, each covering a distinct angle of the story.
Fyre Festival was organized in 2017 by McFarland and rapper Ja Rule to promote a booking app. It was marketed with promises of luxury and glamour, while countless Instagram influencers and models including Kendall Jenner and Hailey Bieber promoted the event. However, all the performers pulled out and guests were met with disastrous tents and prepackaged foods, a far cry from the villas and gourmet delicacies they were promised. Subsequently, as the lack of planning and fraudulent financial transactions were revealed, the organizers were hit with eight lawsuits, resulting in McFarland’s six-year prison sentence.
When retelling the story of Fyre Festival, both documentaries struggle with issues of credibility. “Fyre Fraud” paid McFarland for an exclusive interview, a thorny choice typically frowned upon in journalism – as well as an ethically questionable decision given all the money McFarland swindled. However, the payment does not seem to impact the narrative, as the filmmakers do not spare McFarland from criticism. On the other hand, “Fyre” was produced in partnership with Jerry Media and Matte Projects, two companies involved with the festival’s organization. The film takes a softer approach to questioning sources, seemingly allowing the companies to absolve themselves of wrongdoing. While neither aspect is disqualifying, both are important to bear in mind while watching the films.
“Fyre Fraud” was released Jan. 14 without any prior notice, just days before Netflix was set to release “Fyre” on Jan. 18. The first film follows McFarland’s story chronologically, exploring his past business endeavors – or scams, depending on how one views them – and detailing how they led him to Fyre Festival. The film’s editing is frenetic and stylistic in a way that injects the atmosphere of Fyre Festival into the screen, speeding up the editing and music as the clock counts down to the festival, forcing the audience to feel the claustrophobic tension as the deadline approaches.
McFarland’s interview for “Fyre Fraud” is notable for all that he fails to say. In the course of the interview, McFarland shifts from rehearsed, optimistic answers to uncomfortable silence and attempts to change the subject, exposing him as a grifter able to charm his way out of almost anything until his con got too big to manage.
The film is supplemented with interviews from former employees, festival attendees and experts in business, finance and psychology. The experts provide the most interesting point of view, characterizing McFarland’s actions as reckless at best and criminal at worst. In one of the more chilling moments, a psychologist concludes that McFarland pathologically lies and charms others to get what he wants.
Because “Fyre Fraud” is so focused on unraveling McFarland, the documentary generally ignores the larger human impact. While the film holds him accountable for his con, it barely touches on those hurt by the failure, like all of the local Bahamians who were working around the clock to try to put on the festival and were never paid. Instead, it mentions the cost as an afterthought in closing subtitles – a move that feels insincere in its brevity given the full and nuanced exploration of McFarland.
“Fyre,” on the other hand, does focus on the human cost. The film is primarily made up of interviews from guests and organization partners, such as the heads of the media companies tasked with promoting Fyre Festival. Additionally, the documentary devotes about a quarter of its running time to some of the local Bahamians who tried to help with the production of the festival and were ultimately left unpaid. The choice broadens the scope and helps ground the film in a much-needed pathos.
Both the interviews with the company officials and Bahamians offer compelling stories about the galling conditions of the planning process. A Bahamian restaurateur was forced to take out $50,000 of her own savings to pay some of the wages Fyre Festival owed her employees. This level of detail paints a more lurid picture of the festival itself, offering the audience a real sense of the measly attempt that went into planning and executing such a massive endeavor.
But the downside of “Fyre” is apparent. Because of the organizers’ involvement in the documentary, the film spares them from the same harsh criticism as “Fyre Fraud.” McFarland’s absence allows the companies to shift the blame from themselves and onto the mysterious bogeyman of an organizer. Essentially, they’re able to deny the role they played as enablers – a note that feels disingenuous in spite of the hard-hitting truth of the rest of the film.
Both “Fyre Fraud” and “Fyre” have their respective shortcomings, which is what makes the two good companions. Where one documentary falls short, the other documentary picks up the ball. Together, the two competing films offer a more comprehensive look at the structure of our culture – the way in which the importance of image and social media pervade, and the very real cost that is incurred in the process. When Fyre Festival happened, many took to social media to mock the privileged millennials conned out of thousands of dollars and stranded on a tropical island. However, the documentaries make clear that the issues at the heart of Fyre Festival reach the world in which we all live – they’re not limited to a remote island in the Bahamas.