The story of a colossal music festival failure, told twice (and well)
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“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser. Your average guy in Middle America.” – Billy McFarland, co-founder of the Fyre Festival.
It was hyped as a groundbreaking, generation-defining, zeitgeist musical festival attendees would be talking about for decades to come.
Ultimately, the defining image from the event would be a sad cheese sandwich sharing a Styrofoam tray with pieces of lettuce and slices of tomato aspiring to be a salad.
Built on a wobbly foundation of social media buzz, outrageous lies, false promises and bold cash grabs, felled by greed and incompetence and corruption and stupidity, the Fyre Festival of 2017 is one of the great failure stories of the decade.
Some observers were stunned at the audacity of the promoters and felt sorry for the millennials who shelled out big money in good faith for the experience of a lifetime — only to find themselves stranded in a rain-soaked camp and desperate to get home.
Others reveled in the images of these seemingly privileged twentysomethings getting scammed because they were blinded by FOMO.
What great material for a documentary! Or even TWO dueling, streaming documentaries coming out in the same week!
In this corner, available on Netflix starting Friday: “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.”
And in that corner, with an unexpected debut in an obvious (and clever) ploy to upstage the competition: Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud.”
Let’s start with the Netflix film, which chronicles the Fyre Fest debacle through archival footage, viral videos and the recollections of journalists, financial experts, island locals and high-level staffers who worked on the event.
Conspicuously absent as interviewees are the two “stars” of the story: Fyre Festival co-founders Billy McFarland and the rapper Ja Rule, who sold the dream of a star-studded event on a private island paradise where fest-goers would stay in luxury villas, enjoy the finest cuisine and libations, rub elbows with world-famous models and some of the most popular Instagram “influencers” and be entertained by more than a dozen of the biggest musical acts on the planet.
“It was just the coolest party you’ve ever seen advertised,” says Gabrielle Bluestone, a journalist with Vice.
We see footage of a media event where Ja Rule says to the audience, “I’m gonna let my partner in crime here explain” what the festival is all about.
Some choice of words.
McFarland assembles an all-star list of models and Instagram stars, including Emily Ratajkowski, Hailey Baldwin and Bella Hadid, to shoot a lavish commercial in the Bahamas. (In a harbinger of things to come, there’s a shot of Billy passed out on the beach in the middle of the day, still clutching a bottle of beer in his hand.)
At a booze-soaked party celebrating the launch of the project, Ja Rule and Billy recite their “famous” toast: “Here’s to living like movie stars, partying like rock stars and f—ing like porn stars!”
With social media abuzz and a roster of big-name acts attached to the festival, 95 percent of available tickets were sold within 48 hours.
Now all Billy had to do was obtain tens of millions of cash; lock in an actual location with the necessary infrastructure, housing, transportation, waste disposal, water supplies, etc.; put together the stages, sound systems and lights; make sure there was adequate wi-fi; purchase the liquor and the food and hire the necessary staffers to serve the liquor and prepare the food; obtain festival insurance; take care of all the local taxes, and oh — do about a hundred other things required when one is staging a huge festival.
As “Fyre” makes painfully clear, just about everyone involved with the project — including the co-founders — had to have known they were tumbling down a mountain at rapid speed and headed for almost guaranteed scandal and disaster, yet everyone kept on working, as if the denial would somehow soften the blow.
It didn’t. Festival-goers arrived to find a barren campground dotted with FEMA tents; little in the way of even basic food and water, and not a single performing act in sight.
• • •
Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” has one big selling point over the Netflix doc: an interview with Billy McFarland, prior to McFarland beginning a six-year sentence for wire fraud. Filmmakers reportedly paid McFarland a handsome sum for the interview and for rights to certain footage — but McFarland hardly helps his case by spewing nonsense such as, “We didn’t break the law in the execution of the festival,” and, “Show me one thing I said [in this interview] that’s not true …”
At which point the filmmakers rattle off a list of things McFarland has said that aren’t true.
(The Netflix doc also has a red flag: It was made in cooperation with the social media agency Jerry, which was involved with the festival. Not surprisingly, the Hulu doc is tougher on Jerry than the Netflix film.)
“Fyre Fraud” is a little zippier and pop culture-y in its skewering, e.g., a clip comparing McFarland and one of his minions to Michael Scott and Dwight Schrute from “The Office,” and another snippet portraying the Fyre team as the real-life version of the splashy and inept Entertainment 720, a “premiere, high-end, all-media conglomerate” from “Parks and Recreation.”
The similarities between the docs are greater than the differences; in fact, both “Fyre” and “Fyre Fraud” feature some of the same cell-phone videos shot by festival-goers and incorporate interviews with a number of the same key players.
And both films paint a vivid picture of an old-fashioned Ponzi scheme dressed up in 21st century media and technology.
‘Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened’
Premiering Friday on Netflix
Now streaming on Hulu