Do we really like to watch a train wreck? Or isn’t it much more satisfying to see something go off the rails but wind up back on track and ultimately reach its destination, a la Woodstock or the making of Fitzcarraldo? Perhaps it depends on who is aboard the train? For many viewers, the riders of the Fyre Festival express were a limited number of organizers and attendees, for others, it was the whole millennial generation. For the Hulu documentary Fyre Fraud, it was pretty much just entrepreneur Billy McFarland, and rather than just a passenger, he was in front, shoving money into the boiler of the engine full steam ahead.
Actually, for Fyre Fraud, McFarland is the train wreck itself, while Fyre Festival, the notorious 2017 debacle of a would-be Woodstock of our time, is one of the flaming cars in tow. Fyre Fraud is the better, or at least just the more streamlined, of two so-so documentaries about the Fyre Festival released in the same week. The other, Netflix’s more serious Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, is surprisingly scattered in its examination of what happened. Directed by Chris Smith of American Movie fame, the film is also solely focused on the failed event, while Fyre Fraud looks at more of the bigger picture that led to its failure.
Even as Hulu’s documentary, helmed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason (Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story), is the more accessible and fulfilling of the two, neither of the Fyre Festival films is enough on its own. You’re best off if you subscribe to both streaming services and make time for both features, each of which is only roughly 90 minutes in length. I recommend watching Furst and Nason’s doc first (as I did) because it’s a more chronological telling of the story of McFarland, his previous endeavor founding the company Magnises, and his criminal mismanagement of Fyre Media, its booking app, and the music festival.
Regardless of what you know about the Fyre Festival going into Fyre Fraud — from absolutely nothing to the basic buzz about the Bahaman destination event’s truly laughable accommodations (who didn’t see the tweet of the infamous cheese sandwich?) to the full back story and the aftermath including McFarland’s conviction on charges of wire fraud and misrepresenting his company to investors — there are sure to be details you’re unfamiliar with. Much of them shared through interviews with people involved firsthand. Not so much from the mouth of McFarland himself, however — although him being a talking head is a selling point.
Real life villains — like bad guys in fiction — are fascinating to watch. Even if, as in the case of McFarland, they don’t say much, because of the inability to comment on aspects of a criminal investigation or because of a lack of words with which to explain oneself, such subjects still give a physical performance that includes revelatory body language and intriguing moments of silence. Fyre Fraud is a documentary with a lot of information, but there’s also so much that can be read between the lines, particularly regarding how McFarland is both an extreme representative of millennial stereotypes and essentially a minor-league Donald Trump.
The film never goes deep into any point on its own, however, and that makes for an informative but trivial take, especially pertaining to the Fyre Festival, which is what audiences will primarily be interested in learning more about. Plus there are some disagreeable choices made with the doc. I don’t really have a problem with the filmmakers paying McFarland for his interview (read The Ringer’s article on that) — others will question the ethics of such compensation — but I do really dislike the use of a computer voice that reads documents featured on screen. I also find no value in the film’s interview with McFarland’s girlfriend.
For better or worse, Fyre Fraud is also more befitting of the millennial audience that will be its prime demographic in terms of its easy, pop culture-referencing shorthand in the interviewees’ commentary. McFarland was Michael Scott from The Office, while chief marketing officer Grant Margolin was Dwight, a former employee of Magnises describes. Another person points out that we know the team leading the investigation against McFarland as the one depicted in the show Billions. It’s the sort of doc that will show a cartoon clip of characters rolling down a slope in a literal snowball when someone says things were snowballing out of control.
Fyre, the Netflix documentary, is not so rudimentary. And its narrative stays centralized with occasional side notes about Magnises or some other squeezed-in background information. Admittedly, it’s difficult to make a claim that Smith’s film doesn’t present the story and facts sufficiently because I’d already just gotten the basics from Fyre Fraud, though there’s no denying the Hulu film is smoother in its straightforward digestibility. But while Fyre does, obviously, have some of the same facts and footage, there is also additional material that, especially when watched after the other, paints a greater, fuller picture of what happened.
Smith doesn’t have an exclusive with McFarland, and he’s not as judgmental of the guys from Fyre’s marketing firm, Jerry Media (aka FuckJerry), which worked with Smith, Netflix, and Vice Studios on the doc (they’re not exactly heroes in Fyre, either, however). And the people who overlap, like social media whisteblower Calvin Wells (aka @FyreFraud on Twitter), offer little that’s not in the other film. But Smith does have his own unique interviews with some worthy commentators that have firsthand accounts who aren’t in Fyre Fraud. The MVP being events producer Andy King, who shares a must-hear (and must-watch, for his expressions) story of just how shockingly desperate things got leading up to the start of the Fyre Festival.
What’s disappointing about Fyre, especially after the hints of bigger thematic substance in Fyre Fraud, is that it doesn’t go any further than just giving the rundown of how the Fyre Festival became such a massive clusterfuck. Both documentaries are rather superficially the equivalent of the “unmaking-of” documentaries (Lost in La Mancha, Jodorowsky’s Dune, Netflix’s own Shirkers) popping up more and more these days but for the music festival and fan convention subgenres. We’ve already seen one of these recently for a 2018 fan event: Shane Dawson’s The Truth About TanaCon similarly involves social media influencers, but the online miniseries is so much fresher in its YouTube-celeb-led investigative style.
The story of McFarland and the Fyre Festival aren’t just something to laugh about and move on from. That’s why we have not just one but two documentaries — or, that should be why: to fill in the gaps we missed while just following the debacle via headlines and viral images on Twitter and Instagram but also to say something about what something this ridiculous and criminal says about the world today. Fyre Fraud begins to get into some of the contextual relationships of the story to other modern trends and current events, albeit for comedic purpose, but there’s not really a thesis there or in Fyre, let alone the one that could sum it all up best.
Perhaps we haven’t seen the last doc on the Fyre Festival and its related figures and subjects. After all, Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock, while being an incredible immediate record of the 1969 concert, wasn’t the end of discussion on that generation-defining event. Between Fyre Fraud and Fyre, we have essentially one good two-part document of this decade’s generation-defining event, and we can, on our own, conclude how depressing yet apt that is that today’s Woodstock equivalent is such a blazing fiasco. Later on, we’ll see it more concisely and insightfully discussed as a segment of a CNN docuseries on the 2010s.