Some things are just too good to be true. The Netflix Original documentary “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” traces how the promise of a luxury private island music festival became a full-fledged scam.
Famed documentarian Chris Smith (American Movie, Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond) sewed together behind-the-scenes festival footage alongside present-day interviews investors, festival contractors, island locales, and Fyre Festival concertgoers. Those featured in the film were in attendance at the Metrograph Theater premiere last night, with one glaring exception: the incarcerated mastermind of it all, Billy McFarland. A collectively-dubbed “sociopath,” McFarland remained an elusive character with Jordan Belfort business practices and the presence of a snake charmer.
Director Smith beautifully recreated the infectious excitement surrounding the festival, reminding audiences of its original purpose to showcase the fledgling celebrity booking app McFarland and rapper Ja Rule had announced. The initial promotional video for the festival was seductively intriguing: Pablo Escobar’s private Bahamian island inhabited only by bikini-clad supermodels like Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, accessible solely by private jet or yacht. Festival headliners ranged from Disclosure to Blink-182. The infamous reality of Fyre instead included reused hurricane relief tents, cheese sandwiches, and plane delays. As the film suggests, Fyre Festival is an intimate example of the dangers of influencer marketing. “Fyre is Instagram coming to life,” musician Major Lazer mused on screen.
The uniquely candid documentary is told primarily from the organizers and marketers like Matte Projects and Jerry Media, also sympathetic victims of McFarland’s insatiable fabrications. “I felt the contractors were really the soul of the festival,” Smith said during a Q&A session moderated by Time Out New York senior film critic Joshua Rothkopf after the screening. “They were dealt a really bad hand of cards.”
Director Smith actively chose to portray the full arc of the festival’s conception, rather than solely focus on its blatant failure. “There was this very snarky take on the festival and it was interesting to me to just sort of try to put a human face on it and show why people got involved and how this thing built up,” Smith explained. “It’s very easy after it collapsed to say ‘obviously this wasn’t going to work’ but I think that with any creative endeavor, you sort of jump off the diving board and just hope there’s water in there.”
The inclusion of interviews with the Exuma-based festival workers emphasized the entitled sense of colonialism that McFarland practiced. After employing dozens of locales to build tents and stage platforms, McFarland abandoned the island without paying wages, inciting strikes and riots.
The Vice Studios-produced documentary offers a snapshot of this unique era, one where a reality star is President and the amount of social media likes declares the worth of celebrity. “Fyre” isn’t just about a singular event, but rather a generation.