The internet has become the home of humanity’s greatest examples of Schadenfreude. And no event in the past decade has exemplified this phenomenon more than Fyre Festival – the festival that would end all festivals. The festival that was going to make Coachella look like a flip phone, Woodstock like a telegram. The ultimate festival fantasy, travel to a remote island to watch your favorite music acts on a beach and on yachts in the company of models/celebrities and gourmet food, was sold on lies and derailed by a lack of funding – and a lack of intelligence. While people laughed and memed when it was discovered that the mythical Fyre Festival turned out to be a more comical version of The Blair Witch Project, much of the underlying causes of the disaster and the major players that enabled it might not have been common knowledge for most people.
Netflix set out to change that, as earlier this year they released Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. A deep dive into the hows and whys of the perplexing festival, the documentary highlights the stupidity and negligence that was on full display in the lead up to the anticipated music festival. However, before Netflix’s documentary could be released, Hulu stepped in with a curveball at the 25th hour. Fyre Fraud, a Hulu original documentary, was released on January 14th – a mere 4 days before Netflix’s now competing doc. In an attempt to one-up Netflix, Fyre Fraud even includes an interview with the mastermind of the festival – “entrepreneur” Billy McFarland. It was a brilliant marketing tactic by Hulu, one as savvy as some of the tactics employed by the actual Fyre Festival. But which doc offers a better summation of the events in question?
The two docs go about re-telling the events in similar ways. There is plenty of setup for Billy McFarland and his past scams. Across two documentaries, no one is entirely sure what the hell McFarland does for a living, and the suspicion on everyone’s tongue seems to be that he is simply a scam artist who possibly had a decent sized financial base to begin his startups. These startups range from a credit card called Magnises to an app that allows you to book celebrities. Magnises promised rewards that it couldn’t possibly deliver on – allowing you to buy tickets for games and concerts, as well as housing for discounted prices. The Fyre app would allow you to bid for bookings for celebrities, in which said celebrity would have the opportunity to swipe left or right on your request – the wholesome Tinder. It seems that McFarland was very much a believer in the get rich quick method, instead of working his way up through the business sector. Things would escalate when he crossed paths with rap artist and living meme Ja Rule, who McFarland would rope into being a spokesperson for Magnises – and later the Fyre Festival.
It’s unclear who the original idea for the Fyre Fest lies with. The most likely answer is McFarland. However, Ja Rule has stated he had nothing to do with the formation of the idea. Yet, he’s also stated that it was his “vision”, sometimes presenting the two conflicting ideas in the same damn interview, as depicted in Fyre Fraud. But the festival fits into the modus operandi for McFarland as a scam artist – promise steak, but deliver with gas station beef jerky.
The two docs do a great job of summarizing the lead-up to the event, but I’d give Netflix the edge in explaining how this was doomed to fail from the start. The Hulu doc appears to be running in place for a good portion of the first half. However, Netflix puts the events in an easily consumable chronological order. We understand how Instagram influencers were used to hype the event up. How celebrities such as Kendall Jenner put the festival in the public consciousness. The Instagram account @fuckjerry primarily handled the official marketing of the event. To Hulu’s credit, they do a better job of going into the details of the marketing campaign – the original ad and the orange tiles are highlighted for causing FOMO in social media users. But Netflix does a better job of explaining how much of a mess the behind the scenes events were. There weren’t going to be enough villas or tents to house the thousands of people attending. We learn that pilot Keith Van Der Linde determined pretty early on that the plumbing situation would not work for as many people as were expected, and that the tents were unlivable. His concerns were completely ignored. You’ve probably already heard about how McFarland asked his openly gay business partner, Andy King, to perform fellatio on a custom official in order to release the water that McFarland and his team had yet to pay for. Almost nothing was going right, and anything that did seemed to be by accident.
They started working on the infrastructure of the event mere months before the scheduled dates of the festival, for an undertaking that would take at least 1-2 years to deliver on all of its promises. As it was clear the infrastructure wouldn’t be in place on time, the solution from McFarland was to just chug along anyway, hiring as many construction workers as he could find, many of which worked in access of 17-18 hours a day. In a sad bit of comedy as part of the Netflix doc, caterer Maryann Rolle surmised that McFarland had hired every soul on the island to help fix his mess. The lead-up to the festival was met with a multitude of crises that McFarland either ignored or believed he could fix by convincing his customers to invest more money in their experience.
As the festival abruptly arrived – chaos ensued. Tents were flooded by a rainstorm prior to the arrival of the guests. Food was sparse. Supplies were essentially a free for all. The scene resembles a FEMA crisis rather than a music festival. Cheese on toast, and gifs of Ja Rule (who was not on the island) being hunted by angry customers were memed into existence. The festival was cancelled before it even began, and attendees went through hell before being eventually flown out of the worst island getaway of all time.
Eventually, Hulu’s doc puts McFarland on the witness stand to answer for his crimes. ALL of his answers either fail to address the question or lack any credibility to be taken seriously (Fyre Fraud even debunks several of his answers immediately). I understand why Hulu wanted this interview, but it’s ultimately pointless. Your perception of McFarland won’t change after watching his poorly thought out answers. At the very least, he does take some responsibility when he could have just blamed everyone else. But by giving McFarland a personal spotlight, Fyre Fraud shortchanges the actual victims of the fraud. And this is where the two docs eventually diverge. While both cover the same ground and feature many of the same interviewees, their tones allow us to view the festival through different lenses. Hulu maintains a comedic tone throughout, while theorizing that FOMO was the major cause for the event selling out. But there’s never a sense that Fyre Fraud is taking things too seriously – the current whereabouts of the main perpetrators is even recounted at the end of the doc while “Build Me Up Buttercup” plays in the background.
In a thinly veiled jab at Netflix, Fyre Fraud even alludes to the fact that the team behind @fuckjerry helped produced the Netflix doc, not so subtly questioning the credibility and biases of said doc. Which is a bit ironic, as Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened feels more authentic because it shines a greater spotlight on the victims that were taken advantage of by McFarland. We learn that the construction workers were never paid for their work. We learn that Maryann Rolle was forced to pay several of her workers with her own money, draining her savings. Netflix plays up the comedy when appropriate, but never loses sight of the bigger picture. The people whose story should be heard are the customers and workers who were screwed over. Not Billy McFarland, or Ja Rule, or anyone else who clearly didn’t give a damn about those who were hurt by their actions. Overall, it may be beneficial to watch both documentaries. I prefer the Netflix doc, but both have their unique details and perspectives that help color this event. Or, you could just watch Internet Historian’s quick summary of the events and save yourself 3 hours.