I’m not sure I’ve ever involuntarily yelled “Oh my God!” at a movie as many times as I did watching Fyre, Netflix’s new documentary about one of the most infamous music festival of all time. The film is both compulsively watchable and — for a person like me who doesn’t love traveling and perpetually fears he’ll show up on a trip only to find his hotel reservations have been lost — incredibly nightmarish. The people mounting this festival (and failing on a level few have ever failed at anything before) are either so oblivious to their incompetence or so corrupt that things just go from bad to worse to oh my God did they really just dump several hundred people into a flooded tent city in the Bahamas without any guidance or instruction or water, how did this happen?!?
Fyre, directed by Chris Smith (American Movie, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, which is also on Netflix), actually does a very good job of explaining how the festival got botched so badly. You should really watch the film to see why for yourself, but the short explanation: A toxic mixture of unchecked ambition and total amorality, a legion of underlings — many well-meaning, if naive — who bought into one man’s bold (yet totally unfeasible) vision, and a social media landscape that values celebrity and “influence” over things of concrete value. In fact, Fyre works best as a cautionary tale of life in the social media age, with an outcome so rich in dramatic irony you’d swear Jordan Peele dreamed the whole thing up for his reboot of The Twilight Zone.
There’s also a lot of fascinating nuts-and-bolts information that most people (myself included) missed in the initial Twitter feeding frenzy about Fyre Festival, which became instantly notorious in the spring of 2017. As you may recall, thousands of hopeful partygoers were lured to an island in the Bahamas on the promise of a once-in-a-lifetime “immersive music festival” with yachts, supermodels, and luxurious catering. Instead, they found chaos, confusion, a soggy, unfinished campsite, and open faced cheese sandwiches — a picture of which, as of this writing, has been retweeted over 1,000 times.
That’s the part that Rod Serling would have loved, and that Smith details so effectively in his film: Fyre Festival was completely destroyed by the same social media complex that built it in the first place. Smith follows Fyre Media founder Billy McFarland — the charismatic face of a company created to build an app for booking musical acts — as he becomes consumed with promoting his latest venture with a glitzy musical festival. McFarland purchases a private Caribbean island, allegedly the former property of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, and puts together an all-star team of publicists and marketers to hype the first Fyre Fest as the ultimate escape from reality for young professionals who dream of living the life of a celebrity. Fyre Festival’s trailer featured world-famous supermodels frolicking on beaches and yachts. Tickets sold out almost instantly to an event with no track record and, as eventually becomes clear, no legitimate chance of delivering on its outlandish promises.
The very thing that made Fyre Fest an early success — the enormous reach of social media influencers, who all agreed to promote the event in exchange for exclusive access or cold-hard cash — also proved to be its eventual undoing. Fyre Festival seemingly filmed everything, both their good moments and bad, and Smith expertly assembles the footage of their preparations with new interviews featuring many of the people who tried to meet the festival’s tight deadlines and their clientele’s impossible expectations. When the crap hits the fan — or would have hit the fan if any sort of air conditioning equipment had shown up in the Bahamas — the same influencers (and wannabes) who spread the word about Fyre Festival in the first place where on hand to document just how truly awful the conditions were on the ground.
Beyond the piquant cocktail of FOMO and schadenfreude, what lingers from Fyre is the portrait Smith paints of McFarland, who colleagues frequently describe as either a genius or a madman. (The scene late in the doc where he allows himself to be filmed while apparently participating a fraudulent ticketing scheme while out on bail for the crimes he committed at Fyre Festival might offer a conclusive answer to this lingering mystery.) Although McFarland himself isn’t interviewed in Fyre, the way he comes across in the archival footage, and the way he’s talked about by others, puts him squarely in the tradition of Chris Smith documentary protagonists: Obsessive eccentrics who believe in things so ferociously that they will stop at nothing to achieve their goals. Of course, when your goal is defrauding investors out of hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s a bit different than making a horror movie in your sleepy Midwestern town.
I sat watching Fyre in a state of amused disbelief (while, yes, occasionally taking the Lord’s name in vain). There’s not too many places to see this much madness, ego, greed, and full-on stupidity on display at the same time. The film runs a lean 99 minutes, with a constant supply of remarkable behind-the-scenes clips and anecdotes. (The one about the Bahamian customs agent … wow.) When it’s over, you have a better understanding of our modern digital world. Perception is reality, as the saying goes. But Fyre also reminds us that on the internet, both of those things can be manipulated all too easily.
Fyre will be available on Netflix on January 18.
Galleries — The Best Netflix Original Shows and Films, Ranked: