Fight Fyre with Fyre: Which streaming Fyre Festival doc is the best?
We're currently digging ourselves out of a foot of snow while the governor calls a state of emergency – and we haven't even reached the worst weather of the week yet. So what better time to heat up with the Fyre Festival? Because who needs chicken noodle soup when you've got images of sunny Bahaman beaches, rich millennial Insta-celebs getting scammed and techbro douchebags headed to prison to warm your heart and soul.
For those who forgot amidst the hundreds of other insane news stories that happen in a day, the Fyre Festival was supposed to be the ultimate luxury music festival, hosted on a private island in the Bahamas (once owned by Pablo Escobar) and attended by the world's most famous supermodels. Instead, attendees were greeted by an unfinished gravel pit, FEMA tents and a cheese sandwich in a Styrofoam container. And it was the best, with the ensuing horrified tweets and Instagram posts turning into much better entertainment than seeing Blink-182 in the Bahamas.
Obviously everyone wanted to know how such an inglorious catastrophe could happen – and to the rescue came a pair of streaming services with dueling docs: "Fyre" from Netflix and "American Movie" director Chris Smith, and Hulu's "Fyre Fraud." So which of these docs is worth your snow day?
Hulu's "Fyre Fraud"
While people eagerly awaited Netflix's Fyre Festival doc, Hulu pulled a little swindle of its own, dropping "Fyre Fraud" four days before its rival's take with no warning. It was an impressive bit of backstabbing amongst streaming services, but while Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby's doc claims the title of first, it sure feels like it came at the expense of the actual movie – at best unfocused, at worst 90 minutes of the "How do you do, fellow kids" meme come to life.
The film follows the breakdown of the festival from the inside, how poor planning and scamming led to a bunch of rich kids wandering around a stony plot, ransacking mattresses in between social media posts with no real way home. But much like the festival's creators, Furst and Willoughby get easily distracted along the way, spending far too much time on shallow detours on millennials and, most glaring, social media – complete with a long, belabored explanation and deep dive into the meaning of "FOMO."
Add in an extraordinary amount of pointless TV clips and memes underlining every point and reference – because how will I know what a millennial is unless I see an "SNL" clip?! – and "Fyre Fraud" feels rather slight and pointless, more like skimming a fitfully amusing Twitter feed than watching a thoughtfully organized documentary.
In between clips from "The Office" and "Billions," Furst and Willoughby splice in the biggest get between the two documentaries: an interview with Billy McFarland, the mastermind (and master criminal) behind the madness. Ostensibly, the doc's key focus is on the rise, fall and even further fall of its leading bro. (That would explain the material on Billy's childhood and current girlfriend.) But much like everything in McFarland's career, the segments don't live up to the hype. Save for a few late moments of persistent challenge from the interviewer, he reveals little and denies a lot. In the end, it's just McFarland humblebragging and deflecting with one of the world's most punchable voices, or making sad puppy faces in an under-lit room.
The doc does pull some fun anecdotes from the process of (not) building the festival and those attempting to escape after arriving – and no matter the packaging, the schadenfreude has never stopped satisfying. But Hulu's "Fyre Fraud" is exactly the movie this debacle deserves: haphazard, scattershot, amateurish (there's not even room to discuss the weird, outdated robotic voice reading on-screen text) and empty, using social media and pop culture to fill in where the substance should be. These two deserve each other; you, on the other hand, deserve better.
If "Fyre Fraud" is 90 minutes of "lol millennials amirite," Netflix's documentary is the colorful, in-depth autopsy of the Fyre Festival that audiences first desired when the event served cheese slices and salad all over Twitter. There's structure, characters, material to chew on, filmmaking craft – in short, this is an actual movie, not just a meme-infused listicle adapted to film.
And while Hulu's movie has Billy McFarland talking without saying anything to the camera, "Fyre" has a guy admitting that he almost sucked a d*ck out of desperation to make the Fyre Festival happen. So there's an obvious winner here.
While "Fyre Fraud" skitters from idea from idea – focusing on McFarland, then the festival, then social media, back to the festival, then influencers and the aftermath – digging into very little, Smith's film hones in entirely on the making and almost immediate breaking of Fyre Festival with the help of quite the impressive stockpile of behind-the-scenes footage. From the first viral promo video shoot to the drama of buying, then losing, an island and just merely starting with just months before wings up, "Fyre" does a full-scale breakdown of how entertainingly broken the process was – and how oddly everyone was willing to believe a two-bit con man based on his "energy" and "chrisma" (re: rich, white male-ness).
Smith structures the movie like an actual story, building tension and drama while slowly moving its characters toward their comically doomed conclusion. And when I say characters, there are indeed colorful characters worth investing in and listening to in "Fyre" – from the event planner pushed to the professional brink to snag confiscated water from customs to the Bahaman restaurant owner essentially raided to a tragic husk by McFarland and his phony festival.
Schadenfreude is plenty fun – and "Fyre" has all the sad desperate rich people cosplaying "Lord of the Flies" you'd want, too. But amidst all the laughable tomfoolery, Smith also builds some real emotional pathos and digs up some thoughtful perspective: on the empty unaccountable promises of finance tech bros and their "spend money to make money" ethos, on the people they left behind, on the lives we imagine for ourselves versus the lives we're living – and who gets to turn theirs into reality while ignoring reality. Fyre Festival may have immediately turned into a joke, but Smith nicely finds the true cold, cruel punchline behind the easy laughs – all in an immensely watchable package.
Then again, Billy McFarland was paid for his interview for the Hulu documentary while Jerry Media, the social media PR company behind selling Fyre Festival in the first place, serves as a producer on the Netflix film. So, maybe the last laugh isn't ours, after all.
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