As you’ve no doubt heard by now, two competing documentaries about the Fyre Festival hit their respective streaming services this past week. Can you believe it hasn’t even been two years since the Fyre Festival? The Fyre Festival was the Kennedy assassination of the social media age and we all remember where we were when it happened. Online, of course. We were all online.
Hulu’s Fyre Fest documentary, Fyre Fraud, hit first. Directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, it debuted Monday of last week, and for sheer entertainment value, it’s the superior of the two. It seems to take a more skeptical view of the whole enterprise, from the Fyre Festival itself to founder Billy McFarland to the entire techno-utopian entrepreneur industrial complex that spawned him.
Whereas the Netflix version, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, directed by Chris Smith, previously of the all-time great documentary American Movie, feels much more sympathetic to many of the ancillary characters in the drama, the advertisers and programmers who helped plan the festival and develop McFarland’s app (supposedly) in good faith. Fyre Fraud takes a more “if you didn’t know better, you should have” approach, and doesn’t shy away from doling out blame to Billy McFarland’s New York cool-guy enablers.
Both documentaries have their strengths and weaknesses — Fyre Fraud is particularly strong in its depiction of Billy McFarland and the societal forces that spawned him, while Fyre‘s strength is in the specific detail of where the festival itself broke down and who ended up getting burned the worst in the aftermath. Fyre extends perhaps too much empathy to the New York techies and marketing people who helped McFarland advertise and plan the festival, but that same empathy is also extended to the Bahamians, the day-laborers, and lower-level tech workers and all the lasting consequences they faced because a wannabe entrepreneur refused to face reality — this ends up becoming Fyre‘s strength. And in that aspect, it’s stronger than Fyre Fraud.
Of course, there are procedural explanations for how each respective documentary turned out the way it did, and the creators of each have both criticized the ethics of the other. Fyre offers a more insidery view of creating the initial Fyre Fest viral ad campaign, undoubtedly because the filmmakers struck a deal with Jerry Media (which began as the FuckJerry social media accounts) and subsequently had access to all their footage.
Fyre Fraud focuses more on Billy McFarland and his origin story, undoubtedly because they were able to get McFarland to agree to an interview (they also use lots of stock footage from NBC shows, because Hulu owns the rights to them). Smith subsequently called out Furst and Nason for paying McFarland for his interview (McFarland reportedly told Smith Fyre Fraud was paying him $250,000, while Furst and Nason say the amount was far less, and knowing McFarland’s history of inflating numbers, that’s probably true) while Furst and Nason call out Fyre in their movie for partnering with Jerry Media, who in their view helped cause the disaster in the first place.
For what it’s worth, McFarland’s participation in Fyre Fraud doesn’t seem to win him any more of a sympathetic depiction. Whereas Jerry Media, by contrast, does seem to get the sweetheart treatment in Fyre — particularly in a section where a commercial director is talking about how Fyre Fest hired all the best people “best models, best video directors, best social media company…” at which point Jerry Media’s logo appears on the screen like an infomercial. (Wait, weren’t those the guys who got famous reposting other people’s memes? Fuck those guys.)
Regardless, neither creator’s hands are entirely clean, and one of the fun aspects of these movies coming out at the same time and being seen by so many people is watching the larger world get interested in the non-fiction storytelling process. If you’ve watched/read True Story or the Journalist And The Murderer or Seymour Hersh’s recent memoir (excellent, btw) or any number of similar works on the subject, you know that telling a true story about bad people almost always involves that kind of moral calculus, of trading some piece of objectivity for a corresponding kernel of access. As Janet Malcolm wrote in the Journalist And The Murderer, the journalist “is a kind of confidence man, preying on people’s vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.”
The beauty of Fyre Fest is that no one got murdered — a bunch of shitheads just lost their money (and some good people too). Fyre Fraud does a better job exploring those shitheads and putting them in a societal context, while Fyre does a better job telling the story of those good people, and reminding us to think of them a little while we’re enjoying the rest of our schadenfreude. It was one thing for McFarland to bilk rich investors who sort of deserved it, that he also stiffed day-laborers (day-laborers!) is the part that’s truly beyond the pale. (Incidentally, there have been a pair of GoFundMe pages set up for some of Fyre Fest’s victims on the islands). The societal context is at least as important though. While it’s fun to think of McFarland as some anomaly, as you can see in Fyre Fraud, it’s clear that he was following an already well-established playbook for fresh-faced tech grifters all along.
Like Elizabeth Holmes from Theranos, McFarland comes from money (parents are real estate developers), went to an expensive private college (Bucknell), and loves to tell apocryphal, self-mythologizing stories that paint him as a precocious entrepreneur (which… when did we collectively decide that this was a good thing?). Early in the film, McFarland explains how in second grade, he sat next to a girl he had a crush on, and fixed her broken crayon. From the first sentence you can tell the story is bullshit, because who has crushes on girls in second grade? And if you have a crush on a girl, wouldn’t you fix her crayon for free, why would you demand money? But as with The Room and Tommy Wiseau, the flawed, fictional story still speaks volumes about its creator. McFarland goes onto say that he programmed the school’s internet-connected typewriters to display a message about his crayon-fixing enterprise, all of which is meant as an origin story about this prodigy capitalist. Now, again, what kids old enough to use internet typewriters are still being bedeviled by broken crayons?
Moreover, what was the actual fix? Is this fix something that could be performed by any kid with access to tape? Even in the midst of McFarland’s fake story that doesn’t stand up to more than three seconds of light scrutiny, we still see that McFarland was entirely focused on marketing, with the actual product secondary to the point that it might not even exist. Even the part where he partnered with Ja Rule for additional street cred is a well-established aspect of startup culture branding. How many times have we seen Will.i.am show up at a tech conference or Common sing the praises of AI? McFarland is just doing the same thing, and it’s perfect that his off-brand knockoff Will.i.am was Ja Rule.
Both movies lay the blame for Fyre Fest on McFarland, but Fyre Fraud seems more aware that Billy is an exemplar, not an outlier. It gives us the crucial background on one of McFarland’s early financial backers, Aubrey McClendon, an oil heir and fracking pioneer (you can read how all that fracking has been working out for his home state) who drove his car into an overpass the day after he was indicted for trying to rig oil prices. Billy trying to will himself to feel emotion over this is a highlight of Fyre Fraud, and at least artistically is worth whatever money they paid him.
In any case, that’s especially important context. How many of these pseudo-philanthropic tech entrepreneurs are actually underwritten by old school robber-baron ghouls? How much of our economy is driven by old money failsons placing bets on new money failsons, leveraging profits gained from tearing commodities from the Earth to create new opportunities conning millennials? This is much bigger than Billy McFarland.
Maybe it’s a little “in conclusion, America is a land of contrasts” to say, but the docs are a complementary experience. Both fill in some important areas the other left blank. And how many tales are so compelling that we’d willingly watch two stories about them back to back? What a story.