Film Review: Which of the Dueling “Fyre Festival” Documentaries Should You Stream?

Fyre Festival possesses all the makings of a great story. The festival set the internet on fire in 2016 – 2017, promoted as the most elite party of all time. It was billed as an exclusive party on one of Pablo Escabar’s islands with influencers and performers galore. Tickets were thousands of dollars and people ate it up, despite obvious flaws in the planning. What patrons got was a complete nightmare. Both streaming giants – Hulu and Netflix – released documentaries this week on the subject. Hulu’s doc, “Fyre Fraud,” interviews the conman behind the mayhem, Billy McFarland, and looks at how millennial culture bred this disaster. Netflix’s “Fyre,” meanwhile, chronicles step-by-step the travesties the Fyre team committed as they defrauded plane loads of millennials, as well as investors. Which should you watch? Read to find out:

Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” (dir: Jenner Furst, Julia Willoughby Nason)

How did we get Fyre Festival? Why were so many people duped into this crazy scheme? Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” takes a more macro look at the forces that drove the festival and its goers. In terms of an investigative piece, “Fyre Fraud” is exhaustive. It researches the man behind Fyre Festival, Billy McFarland, the talent behind the project, Ja Rule, but even extends its scorn to meme creators like F**kJerry who had a hand in the promotion of the festival.

Taking a look at the marketing behind Fyre Festival hits to the heart of where the fraud comes in. The festival was sold as this luxury excursion, complete with breathtaking views, top influencers and events that make one’s mouth water. It looks like a party to end all party. F**kJerry was an Instagram account by Elliot Tebele that morphed into a marketing agency. This knowledge of meme culture and Instagram as a platform helped propel this message to the masses. What Hulu gets right is how the messaging sold an experience that was far from what it was in reality. This places just as much blame (rightly so) on the marketers and other parties that amplified the fraud.

Perhaps the biggest selling point of the Hulu doc is the exclusive interview with Fyre founder Billy McFarland. The disgraced con artist comes off evasive and dodgy throughout his interview. However, this doesn’t add any additional color to the man or the disastrous festival. This speaks a bit to the trouble of the perspective of this documentary. So much of the documentary focuses on Billy McFarland’s series of scams, almost hailing him as a brilliant entrepreneurial mind gone wrong. Charting the rise of a man who swindles people with the promise of a great time is interesting. The period he headed Magnises, a credit card and NYC based social club, gives more information and color to him as a person than the one-on-one interview. However, the film doubles down too much on him, exalting him for his schemes and not having a strong enough interview to tie it all together.

When the film turns its eyes away from McFarland, it looks toward millennials. In trying to answer the question, “Why did Fyre Festival happen,” the film tries to define what makes millennials tick. As it analyzes millennials, the platform of Instagram and the profession of influencer, “Fyre Fraud” takes on a didactic tone. There is a great documentary to be done on the rise of the Instagram influencer and the concept of FOMO (fear of missing out). However, the 101 class on millennial culture that “Fyre Fraud” presents obfuscates its point rather than supports it. The connective thread between Magnises and Fyre Festival is that Billy McFarland understands the millennial desire for exclusive experiences. The documentary should’ve taken this approach as a connective tissue. Instead, it comes off as another think piece on litigating what’s right and wrong about the millennial experience.

Overall, “Fyre Fraud” works better as a longform journalistic piece. It’s sprawling and detailed at the same time. However, in bringing the audience up to speed on the millennials its writing about, the documentary takes on a condescending tone. It uses the format of film for some visual wit, namely identifying influencers in the footage from the festival. Yet, it also plays a bit with “Vice’s” smugness, layering in sassy pop culture retorts to further underline its points. There’s a lot to gain here in terms of learning about McFarland’s past escapades. However, one can leave the snark at home and get a better viewing experience from “Fyre” on Netflix.

“Fyre Fraud” is currently streaming on Hulu.

GRADE: (★½)

Netflix’s “Fyre” (dir: Chris Smith)

While Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” comes off like a think piece in video form, “Fyre” feels like a documentary. The film uses the testimony of Fyre employees to walk the audience through how this disaster snowballed out of control. Each mistake or misleading piece of direction builds atop one another like an awe-inspiring Jenga. In conjunction with the Fyre festival, the company of Fyre was also building a platform where users would be able to hire top tier musical talent for everyday parties. It sought to be the Uber of music booking, in a way. How these two scams fed into one another makes for an interesting dichotomy. From those interviewed in “Fyre,” it seemed the festival side was the more volatile of the two. What was supposed to launch this grand app was imploding in a way that could take them both down.

In true filmmaking style, the film builds the more Fyre doubles down on their lofty claims for the festival. Once they realize the only source of housing would be relief tents, they sell more expensive luxury villa options that never existed. When Fyre can’t pay the food vendors they’re using, they just continue to run a larger tab. One of the most haunting elements of the film comes from event producer Andy King. King describes the lengths he was willing to go to in order to secure Evian water for the festival. It’s specific horror stories like this that lodge themselves in one’s mind. “Fyre” excels because it recognizes the unbelievable madness in isolated stories. As each employee tells their horror story, the all coalesce together to paint an engrossing, horrifying tapestry of the fraud of Fyre Festival.

Once the patrons arrive at the island, all hell breaks loose. First the influencers are taken to a local beachfront restaurant where they are pumped with alcohol prior to arriving at the horror show. One of the most chilling moments in the documentary watches the face of the influencers turn as their bus reaches the final destination. This is where Netflix’s documentary goes from engaging to sensational. It becomes a real-time horror show that places you in the middle of Fyre Festival. There’s so much footage of drunk festivalgoers turning on each other for shelter, scouring for their bags or raidingn the main house for information. “Fyre” lets the epic disaster play out. On one hand, this section succeeds in eliciting a cathartic thrill of watching everything go wrong. However, the documentary has done such a good job laying out the horrors, one can’t help but get mad.

For as much schadenfreude as one gets from this fiasco, “Fyre” puts the events in greater perspective. The film takes time to interview many people from the island. What initially was going to be a big boon for these people turned into a nightmare. It ruins the land. It overruns the business of the land. One woman chronicles how she invested in the festival and lost the entirety of her life savings. There’s something funny and cathartic about laughing at the rich people who were stranded by their own desire for Instagram likes. However, this scheme actually cost people their livelihoods and terrorized a community. “Fyre” succeeds at being both insatiably entertaining while also conscious of the larger impact of the festival.

“Fyre” is currently streaming on Netflix.

GRADE: (★½)

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