If you’re above a certain age and/or oblivious of pop culture, you probably have no idea about the fiasco that was the Fyre Festival. It was conceived as a high-end/exclusive concert on a remote Caribbean island. For a price, a very steep price, the hoi polloi could hang out & party with the rich & famous (or at least social media famous).
Well, that was the vision of millennial entrepreneur Billy McFarland and rapper Ja Rule. The reality was radically different.
In short, the Fyre Festival is to music festivals what the 1985 film Gymkata is to American cinema (that’s not a compliment).
Hulu’s documentary, Fyre Fraud, and Netflix’s documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened detail both the rapid rise and epic fall of the festival. Now, you may be scratching your head wondering if this fine example of millennial hubris and chicanery is worthy of two documentaries.
Oddly, it is.
While the festival advertising promised exclusive housing, what it delivered was leftover FEMA tents. While the advertising promised exclusive dining, what it delivered was cheese sandwiches in a styrofoam container. While the festival promised an exclusive island that was once owned by Pablo Escobar, what it delivered was a section on the island of Exuma, a couple of miles away from a Sandals Resort.
Yes, both documentaries tell essentially the same story. Sure, there is some overlap with interviews but the story that’s told is consistent. And alarming. Fyre Festival mastermind (?) Billy McFarland is an unparalleled flimflam man who apparently has charisma beyond what seems humanly possible. Not only could he rip people off blindly, he could even get his one of his seasoned employees to “take one for the team” (wink wink). Fortunately, that didn’t end up happening.
Oh, and he was even savvy (or manipulative) enough to get some employees/contractors to put festival charges on their personal credit cards . . . to the tune of over 100k . . . each!
In many of the interviews with these people what is curiously absent is anger. There seems to be more hurt in their faces and voices.
All told the Frye Festival, led by Mssr’s McFarland and Rule duped people out of millions of dollars (27 million, give or take). Somehow they even got Comcast Ventures to sign a letter of intent to invest in Fyre (to be fair, that investment was not to be in the music festival, but rather an app the two were creating with the Fyre branding).
There were many people who never got paid for their work at Fyre. Many of them on the island of Exuma. There were many that played a role in the failure of the Fyre Festival. Many of them millennials on the island of Manhattan.
There is enough blame to go around but ultimately it’s Billy McFarland who carries the responsibility. He got six years in prison for wire fraud and slapped with a class action lawsuit. The judge also legally admonished him, all but branding him an entrepreneurial pariah (deservedly so).
Conspicuously absent from both doc’s is how Ja Rule escaped without any legal trouble or career fallout.
While on bail for the above mentioned wire fraud McFarland decided he wasn’t yet done bamboozling people. He drummed up another scam under the banner NYC VIP Access. Partnering with some half-wit named Frank Tribble (no, that’s really his name), he tried to sell tickets to extremely high-end events like Burning Man and The Superbowl. Going so far as to try to sell tickets to some events that aren’t even ticketed(!) like The Metroplolitan Gala and the Victoria’s Secret fashion show.
The best part? He targeted the very same people from the Fyre Festival! I guess it’s a thin line between ballsy and stupid. McFarland seems to land on the stupid side . . . a lot.
If Billy McFarland had succeeded maybe we would be viewing the Fyre Festival through the same tinted lenses we look at Woodstock (the original one) with. Then these would be two very different documentaries. But, he didn’t succeed. He failed. In an epic manner.
There is a lot of texture to both of these docs. Odds are if you watch one, you’ll probably want to watch the other. Is one better than the other? No. Although the Hulu doc does have a newish interview with McFarland that’s worth watching. The Netflix doc has a nicer production value.
Hulu or Netflix, it’s the same shitty story about a bunch of over-privileged white millennials being assholes.
As both films unfortunately point out, we’ve probably not heard the last of Billy McFarland and I think it’s true. As a culture, we love second chances. We also seem to celebrate and reward the hubris of hucksters like Billy McFarland.
Social critic and journalist H.L. Mencken once said “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”
A version of this was published at TheLatest.com, January 19, 2019.