Watching the disaster of Fyre Festival unfold on social media was a sight to behold. Hundreds of people who’d paid thousands of dollars for a luxury music festival in the Bahamas arrived to find hurricane relief tents as lodging and cheese on toast as a meal. Attendees started posting pictures of their disbelief, and the whole thing became an instant source of jokes and fascination.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, a Netflix documentary directed by Chris Smith, follows the timeline of the festival from optimistic inception to calamitous execution. Along the way, the movie reveals a staggering tower of corruption and deceit.
Fyre Festival was thought up by slippery young mogul Billy McFarland to promote his talent-booking app Fyre, which he founded with rapper Ja Rule. The festival quickly ballooned out of control, morphing into an amalgamation of McFarland’s dreams of luxury and success, like someone who watched too much of The Fabulous Life of… as a kid. He wanted a beautiful festival in a beautiful place for beautiful people. "We're selling a pipe dream to your average loser," he says to his team. Even if people couldn't attend the festival, McFarland wanted them to be jealous of it.
As the planning progresses, it becomes clear that there is not the money, infrastructure, or time needed to pull off the event. At every turn, people waved red flags with varying degrees of urgency. A logistical consultant pointed out that the island couldn't fit the planned number of attendees. "Instead of thinking about models, you kind of have to think about toilets," he says.
Another consultant recounts being asked by McFarland to perform oral sex on a customs agent so that they would release supplies.
As much as the festival was a disaster from the outside, it was even worse on the inside. Luckily, McFarland was obsessed with documenting what he thought was a genius venture, so there is plenty of footage of his hilariously misguided plans.
Fyre follows a close timeline from the early planning to the aftermath, building tension along the way. The more the employees, consultants, videographers, and other team members describe the chaos within, the more fascinating it gets. They describe the long, stressful hours, doing tasks that were way outside their job descriptions, all while not getting paid, because the company was out of money. Several described it as the worst period of their life.
Festival-goers don’t even arrive until an hour into the movie, and by that point, even though we know how the story ends, there’s palpable tension and almost giddy anticipation. It’s like watching a house of cards get built by someone with butter on their hands.
Though it’s a documentary, Fyre bares similarity to The Social Network in the way it builds up and then tears down a smug young mogul. Smith even takes Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross scores from other projects to emphasize the impending doom.
When the whole thing crashes, it’s not quite as satisfying to watch as the tweets mocking it in real time. But it’s not tragic either, save for the native Bahamians who never got paid for their extensive physical labor. In one scene, a local restaurant owner explains, through tears, how she emptied her bank account to pay people.
It’s awe-inspiring, really, to see the toxic potion of wealth, greed, and delusion in action. In the aftermath, McFarland was soon arrested for fraud, but got out on bail and started a new scam that specifically targeted Fyre Festival victims. There’s footage of that too, because McFarland asked his videographer to film it, still thinking he would walk away clean.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened - Directed by Chris Smith, premieres on Netflix Fri., Jan. 18