Fyre Review: Netflix Looks Behind the Schaudenfreude

Fyre
Fyre, photo: Netflix

Chris Smith’s doc about the infamous millennial music fest gone wrong is handsomely made, but do we need this doc in the first place?

Music festivals have historically been the “great equalizer” of live music experiences: Everyone gets the same basic experience of standing outside listening to bands. That’s been changing over the last few years, with more and more festivals offering VIP experiences to give guests who want to spend extra cash quicker entrances, full restrooms, and even their own cabanas to watch their favorite artists without having to stand in the hot summer sun. With the advent of festivals like Coachella and Burning Man, the festival becomes less about the music and more about the experience and being seen in the right place.

It was only a matter of time, then, that something like the ill-fated Fyre Festival would come about. Combining the promise of a high-end, exclusive experience and promoting the opportunity to be seen with the beautiful people more than the music, this 2017 festival created by entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule ended in spectacular failure. Documentarian Chris Smith explores the road Fyre Fest took from a luxurious promise to viral laughing stock in the Netflix original Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.

For those who don’t know what Fyre Festival was: McFarland – who rose to a small level of fame by creating a credit card designed for wealthy millennial New Yorkers – started a new company called Fyre to create an app to streamline the booking process for big-name acts. In essence, he wanted to create “the Uber for booking talent.” As a marketing ploy for the app, he came up with the idea to host an exclusive music festival on a Cay in the Bahamas. He teamed up with rapper Ja Rule and put together a team to help make his vision a reality. They announced the festival by creating a promo of models playing on the beach and paying Instagram influencers thousands to post an orange square tagging the festival. The festival promised private luxury villas and chef-created meals, but after multiple issues with locations and catering, what was provided were tents and now-infamous cheese sandwiches.

The event was canceled during its first weekend (it was supposed to last two), but without enough planes to carry the guests, people were locked in an airport overnight. The Internet watched the drama unfold, with a type of schadenfreude for those experiencing the most first world of first world problems. Smith weaves personal testimony from Frye employee and festival attendees to paint this train wreck on screen.

Your enjoyment of Fyre will depend on how intriguing you find the subject matter. As a documentary, Fyre is well done with excellent editing, pacing and interviews to drive the narrative forward. The film is easy to follow and takes a chronological approach: documenting the conception of the festival, the mismatch between what was promised in advertising and what was happening on the ground, the disaster of the festivals opening weekend, and the legal and personal aftermath of the festival.

The film is rather heavy on the production of the festival, leaving the aftermath as more of a foot note. This feels like a missed opportunity. The stakes of the film during the production of the festival are rather low: basically, will this festival for wealthy people be fun or not. Watching the build up to the main event, nothing that happens seems to be much of a surprise: Young privileged people overestimate their own abilities, make plans they can’t fulfill and try to save face/make money by lying to their customers, employees and investors.

The aftermath, however, holds more weight: Hundreds of Bahamanians weren’t paid for the work they performed, and one restaurant owner depleted her $50,000 personal savings paying her workers. It also leads to greater questions of influencer culture, as some people wanted to implicate the models and influencers for their part in promoting the festival. Since the posts didn’t indicate they were paid advertisements, many felt it indicated that if you attended you would organically run into these famous people. While, again, this feels so superficial, it does raise the broader question of the issues with “organic advertising,” making it harder and harder for many to tell when they are being advertised to.

The documentary also doesn’t spend much time on McFarland during the filming, though interviews allude to his con man personality. Towards the end, there is a brief discussion of Billy trying to create another scam while on bail, selling reduced tickets to exclusive events like Coachella, the Emmys or the Met Gala, even when many of the events are invite only. It would have been interesting to see what came of that.

It also would have been good to build pathos with the employees on the app side of the business, as their work was completely wiped out by the unrelated festival. Those who work with Billy talked of how he was able to charm them into thinking he cared about them, but ultimately feeling betrayed and abandoned. With barely any time spent on the personal lives of those interviewed or Billy himself, there seems to be a lack of context for the audience.

Overall, Fyre is a good documentary on a middling subject. Is this festival really worthy of an hour and a half documentary? That is ultimately up to the viewer’s tastes and interests. Smith does the topic justice, but it will only appeal to those who want to see failure up close. Thus, it is perfect for a Netflix streaming movie. Click play and see if the story intrigues you; otherwise, you can jump ship.

Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened Trailer
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