For those of us who grew up in the 1990s, having two films on the same topic released within a close time frame should not seem that uncommon. We got Armageddon vs. Deep Impact, Capote vs. Infamous, and in 2016, the People Vs. O.J. Simpsons going up against OJ: Made in America. Unsurprisingly, there are a lot of projects that spark directors creatively, especially when they become culturally relevant in unique ways. When the Fyre Festival occurred in 2017, it became the laughing stock of the internet. The disastrous festival became meme-worthy, not only because of the hipster-ness of it all, but frankly the whiteness of those who attended. For many of us, the schadenfreude of the events helps it stay in our memories and it remains one of the great musical disasters of recent memory.
The digital age often allows audiences to move on to the next gif-able moment. Yet Fyre stuck with many of us. The exploration of what made this festival different seemed like an ideal story to tell as a documentary. With dozens of young adults documenting each moment on their Instagrams, there was certainly plenty of footage to scour through. That made the news that Netflix would let documentaries Chris Smith take a run at the story less than surprising. After all, the streaming platform had their own documentary series on financial crimes, Dirty Money, and Smith had already struck gold with Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. This gave a high profile to Fyre from the moment of its announcement.
However, Hulu was unwilling to cede ground to Netflix. They launched their own documentary, Fyre Fraud, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason. The race was officially on. Fyre Fraud scored a big win by getting the central subjects of both films, Billy McFarland, to agree to an interview. Netflix shot back, explaining that McFarland required payment, and that was antithetical to their filmmaking process. Hulu admitted they had paid McFarland, but also shot back. Advertising group Fuck Jerry and Jerry Media was involved in the production of the Netflix doc, despite crafting the ad campaign for the Fyre Festival. Both sides dragged each other through the mud, and this week, with Netflix’s release of Fyre looming, Hulu threw one last punch. Fyre Fraud dropped on Monday. This story might be worthy of its own documentary one day.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at each documentary. That’s right, I submitted myself to two separate documentaries, each one about 90 minutes long. At the same time, they carried much of the same footage. So which one should you be checking out? Let’s dive in.
Fyre (Netflix) Review
From the introduction of the film, a Smith approaches the events with an investigative lens, crafting a feeling of dread over everything that follows. This, more than any other aspect, works to sell the tone of the documentary. Something is off, but you can’t quite place it. That mood helps director Chris Smith instantly gain credibility on the journey. Rather than kick us off with footage from Fyre, we dip our toes in the opening moments of the advertising campaigns. You can understand how this would be a success. By showcasing the high point of the event’s promotion early in the film, you can truly feel the depths to where Fyre would fall.
With the groundwork laid out for the audience, Smith crafts a central thesis around the film. It can be summed in a moment where the mere idea of a festival comes as an afterthought and side conversation. These people who would go on to create this festival never really cared. They bit off more than they could chew from the get-go. Instead, they believed that because everything had gone right for them before, this event would come together. The app was the selling point of Fyre, not the festival. To approach an undertaking like this from a mindset of privilege and arrogance sets up Fyre for the downfall that will occur.
Smith takes you on the ride through the perspectives of the employees of Fyre, and you can feel the PTSD that set in for all involved. Andy King, Marc Weinstein, media workers, Fyre employees, and locals from the Bahamas discuss meeting McFarland. His sway over people feels hypnotic, and there are stories told that will turn your stomach. You can see McFarland’s belief in himself manifested on large stages, and Smith sets him up as the fall guy for Fyre.
However, rather than spell out McFarland’s villainy, he lets those around the production tell you. Their experience creates real emotion, with each person beaten up and destroyed in uniquely disspiriting ways. No story hits harder than the woman who fed the festival, and had to hire extra workers to help with the event, only to be stuck with the bill. Her emotion burns much more than any of the festivalgoers, turning the event into a genuine human story, rather than one where you laugh at dumb rich white kids. Instead, between her story and another man who was forced to leave his home for fear of violence, the stakes became real. Smith uses Fyre to tell a story about wealth, arrogance, and privilege in the world, and it sticks the landing wonderfully.
Review: Fyre Fraud (HULU)
The news that another company will produce a film on the same topic as you, may occasionally push a director to take a big chance. In the case of Fyre Fraud, they found a way to create an exclusive corner for their story to stand on: get Billy McFarland on camera. McFarland sits down for an interview with the directors of Fyre Fraud, and to their credit, they do not let him off easy. Every time we cut to him, they are blasting him with questions. The questions are almost always leading in some fashion, but McFarland’s ability to weasel his way out of a corner should never be doubted. Their interview with McFarland, and the footage Hulu obtained in the process, may have given the documentary a strong foundation. However, that goodwill was quickly squandered.
The film does a great job breaking down the financial issues at play. At times, it gets into the weeds when discussing McFarland’s personal wealth. However, when it covers the minutia of the money being spent by the team, or how Fyre would sell items before they had even looked up the costs, the film paints a real picture of Ponzi schemes. The refusal to call it that hurts the films a bit, but there’s no denying they attack the actual financials well. Sadly, other elements at play in the film don’t work, and hurt the overall quality of the film.
There are two big issues that drag down the film. First, it treats the audience like they’re children. Rather than letting the footage they collected speak for itself, it constantly relies on outside sources. Clips from The Simpsons, The Office, and Parks and Rec are used to sell moments throughout the film. This distracts and tries to funnel in metaphors for the audience to understand the issues at hand. Trying to use pop culture as shorthand can be helpful, but in this case, it turns the issues into actual cartoon characters. No issue may be greater than the end of the film, and its link between young adults who fell for McFarland’s ploy, and the election of Donald Trump. Do similarities exist? Yes. But this again creates a divide in telling the story effectively and distracts from the points being made. The story speaks for itself. Tell this story, and the audience will find the real world, tangible connections.
Finally, the movie puts too much blame on millennials, who are likely the audience for the documentary. It is fine to say that this group of festival goers were duped. That makes sense. Yet the film uses a few thousand young, rich adults to generalize an entire generation. At other times, such as with an interview with a former Fuck Jerry marketer, they place the blame on “everyone” for the festival’s failure. Put the blame on the people who committed fraud, and are now in jail. Do not make a broad generalization about what it means to be young in America, especially when so many do not live that lifestyle. It is ironic to criticize a generation for trends like FOMO, or saying the kids today overly curate their lives online, all while the film holds up less than 10,000 people as representative for a generation. Frankly, the filmmakers here were too focused on creating a showy version of the story, rather than tackling the real emotional and literal damage that occurred in this process.
All in all, if you choose to watch either documentary, the clear choice is the Chris Smith Netflix version. Between the higher quality, less morally compromising issues, and a frankly better message, this call is a no-brainer. I do encourage viewers to watch both, as each does bring important elements to the table. Given the complexities at play, it would not be shocking to see a Social Network-style film on the topic in the coming years. This might have just been the trial balloon to gauge that very interest.