The Fyre Festival Documentary Is a Lurid Look Into Start-Up-Culture Grift

The Fyre Festival Documentary Is a Lurid Look Into Start-Up-Culture Grift

The Fyre Festival Documentary Is a Lurid Look Into Start-Up-Culture Grift

Chronicling the infamous music festival, the documentary looks at how tech bros turned a luxury getaway into a blockbuster scam.


As the employees of Fyre Media assembled for a glum conference call following the monumental failure of 2017’s Fyre Festival, company co-founder and multi-platinum rapper Ja Rule saw a silver lining: “We didn’t kill anybody.” Unearthing inept, bizarre moments like that is the main purpose of the new documentary Fyre. Chronicling the infamous music festival from its goofy, tech-bro beginnings to its weird, viral end—and billed “as told by the organizers themselves”—the film is a detailed insider account of how the event turned from a luxury getaway into a blockbuster grift. But while it competently reports the story of Fyre, it hews so closely to the perspectives of its sources and found footage that it rarely builds into something larger. When put under a microscope, Fyre Festival looks less like an epic con and more like standard start-up-culture flimflam.

Fyre Festival was always a perplexing idea. An island getaway promising private beaches, yachts, chartered jets, and Blink-182, the event sounded more like a Lonely Island song than a luxury music fest. As bewildered patrons arrived on the Bahamian island of Great Exuma, and quickly took to social media to opine that the event was a logistical disaster that had overpromised and underprovided, the Internet mocked them in kind. Fyre Festival seemed destined to be dissected and analyzed, and to this day, those original images and videos remain as relics of its ruin.

Fyre rounds up all these scattered posts, pairing them with interviews with the festival’s employees. Leading the pack of upcoming Fyre exposés—including a podcast created by a festival attendee and a Hulu docuseries—Fyre, produced by Vice Media and distributed by Netflix, is first in line to reset the Fyre narrative. From its straightforward name to its sober, procedural tone, Fyre is largely interested in moving past the jokes and mockery that followed the festival’s storied implosion. Avoiding the snarky online reception of the festival, director Chris Smith focuses on the employees, contractors, and vendors that Fyre Media burned. Weaving together firsthand testimonies, internal e-mails and videos, and financial documents, Smith presents the company’s management as reckless and deceptive.

Through this approach, Smith homes in on the oddest aspect of the Fyre fiasco: The festival was initially a marketing ploy for Fyre Media’s original product, a sleek reservation app. Conceived by Fyre co-founder Billy McFarland, an entrepreneur who styled himself as a moneyed go-getter, the app was supposed to ease access to popular entertainers by centralizing their booking prices and contact information. Similar apps and services abounded—Cameo, Live Nation, Ticketfly—but Fyre’s app was the centerpiece of the company’s vision, and it was still under development as the festival metastasized. This dynamic creates a jarring contrast that Smith uses to ground the absurdity of the festival. As former employees hired to develop the app describe the lapses in pay, the unreal demands, and the general sense of helplessness, it’s hard to laugh at the excesses of Ja Rule and McFarland: Clearly, the Fyre Media working environment was stressful and befuddling.

Unfortunately, as the dizzying idiocy of the festival begins to take center stage, the app fades from view, precluding any questions about it. That blind spot becomes more distracting once Smith tells the story of Fyre Festival’s marketing, which recruited Instagram influencers, YouTubers, and supermodels to popularize the event. A glam commercial filmed on an island previously owned by Pablo Escobar was the fulcrum of the marketing campaign, and Smith uses this and McFarland’s sordid history as the booster of Magnises—an exclusive, perk-filled credit card service for millennials—to play up the sense that Fyre Festival was a mirage built on mirages.

It’s not an unconvincing narrative, given the exoticism of the festival’s island allure and the company’s emphasis on an image that it couldn’t afford, but it buries the lede by treating Fyre Festival as some unique scam. Beneath every hilarious Ja Rule gaffe and McFarland ruse, there’s an undercurrent of unqualified belief in entrepreneurship. Even if the festival had gone splendidly, the Fyre app would have entered an already crowded marketplace of booking agencies, platforms, and ticket exchanges; virtually everything the app promised could be found on Instagram or artist websites through a contact form or publicly available e-mail address. No business needs to exist, but the focus on the festival causes the film to lose steam as it moves further away from the reason that Fyre existed in the first place. To be frank, the app sounds profoundly stupid.

A more interesting thread lurks beneath the spectacle of the festival. Nearly every former employee or contractor has an anecdote about doubting McFarland and being pleasantly surprised by his ingenuity. These stories generally always center on his ability to keep the money flowing. It’s a tautology that Fyre never really explores: McFarland is a good businessman because he keeps the business going; the business keeps going because he’s a good businessman. In this closed loop of faith and preposterous amounts of money, the vision and viability of the enterprise constantly go unquestioned. It’s fascinating how many people were willing to trust a man with no discernible talents or ideas just because he had money.

Regrettably, Fyre doesn’t follow this thread for long. It’s a shame, because the deeper we dive into McFarland’s house of mirrors, the more generic he becomes. While McFarland is certainly a schemer and is revealed to have forged documents and cooked the books to keep investors at bay, apart from the supermodels, celebrities, and rich kids that he pulled into his orbit, he’s a pretty ordinary crook. Considering that there’s a whole crop of McFarlands out there selling cryptocurrencies and diets and kitchen appliances, it feels myopic to treat him as an anomaly. This narrowed focus is further underscored by the failure of other music festivals. Last year, for instance, Pitchfork detailed a history of bankruptcies and sudden cancellations by events like Pemberton, IowaStock, and UpNorth. In that light, a fatigue sets in as Fyre works embittered festival-goers into its cast of interviewees. True, your everyday rip-off doesn’t involve the guy who sang “Mesmerize,” but it’s easy to take swings at the punching bag.

Ultimately, there’s value in hearing firsthand accounts of the experience of being defrauded and the misery of working for a company that is clearly veering off the rails. Consumers and employees (especially Bahamian day laborers) undoubtedly suffered the most from Fyre Media’s trickery. But in choosing to embrace the narrative that Fyre Festival was inherently an epic failure orchestrated by one deceitful man and his rapper pal, Fyre misses the chance to explore the ecosystem that made the festival possible: the lurid exotica of tourism marketing and the unchecked hubris of start-ups flush with cash. At its best Fyre dials down the jokes and reveals an international tale of labor exploitation. At other points, it feels like a stream of crabby Yelp reviews. At least nobody died?

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