This is the tale of dueling Fyre Fest docs. Within the same week, Netflix and Hulu each released documentaries about the infamous music festival and its confounding co-founder Billy McFarland. But Hulu had the advantage. On Monday, as Netflix allowed reviews to run for their Friday release FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, Hulu announced Fyre Fraud with an eye-catching trailer and—surprise!—an immediate release. Meaning that if you were intrigued by either option, the only one readily available was Hulu’s. It was a savvy and savage move. But with both now out, how do Hulu’s and Netflix’s Fyre Fest docs compare?
FYRE and Fyre Fraud have a lot in common, focusing on key elements of the festival’s creation and downfall, including the model-stuffed promo vid, Kendall Jenner’s involvement, the reactions on social media, the Lord of the Flies vibe of the catastrophic fest, and the brazen Met Gala ticket scam that followed. They share some of the same footage, plucked from Instagram influencers and former Fyre Fest employees. They even feature some of the same interview subjects, including blogger Seth Crossno (William Needham Finley IV on Twitter) and venture capitalist/whistleblower Calvin Wells. And both docs lay a lot of the blame at the feet of Millennial entrepreneur/con man Billy McFarland, who created the doomed fest with rapper Ja Rule. A more dubious connection between the two films is both have arguably shady origins.
Fyre Fraud—which remember came out first—paints not only McFarland as a villain but also Fuck Jerry, the fest’s social media marketing firm. Fuck Jerry was part of the team that made the promo video that launched awareness of Fyre Fest before any of the logistics of the would-be event were put in place. Through an interview with a disgruntled former employee, the Hulu doc claims Fuck Jerry was aware of the impending disaster and are therefore complicit. At the end of their film, directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason point out Jerry Media (a Fuck Jerry company) produced the rival doc FYRE, which causes the ex-employee to curse in disgust. That’s pretty damning, especially as the Netflix doc makes no direct mention of this potential bias/conflict of interests.
In FYRE, Fuck Jerry’s involvement does allow the film a lot of access to behind the scenes footage of McFarland and Rule. However, Jerry Media CEO, Mick Purzycki, claims after that video shoot, the Fuck Jerry team was kept out of the loop on the inner workings (and troubles) of the fest up until they arrived on location right before the event. And—again according to him—when they refused to knowingly post any misinformation on social media in promotion of the event, they were promptly fired by Fyre Media.
When I reviewed FYRE, I was unaware of Fuck Jerry’s involvement in its production. As a lot of former McFarland employees were featured, I didn’t think twice about Purzycki’s appearance in the doc. However, FYRE director Chris Smith has revealed that Fyre Fraud’s production has some ethical issues of its own. Reportedly, they paid McFarland, the known scam artist who owes investors and employees millions, $250,000 for sharing his story.
Smith told The Ringer:
“We were aware of [the Hulu production] because we were supposed to film Billy McFarland for an interview. He told us that they were offering $250,000 for an interview. He asked us if we would pay him $125,000. And after spending time with so many people who had such a negative impact on their lives from their experience on Fyre, it felt particularly wrong to us for him to be benefiting. It was a difficult decision but we had to walk away for that reason. So then he came back and asked if we would do it for $100,000 in cash. And we still said this wasn’t something that was going to work for us.”
Now, Smith’s source on this is known liar McFarland, but Fyre Fraud co-director Furst confirmed they did pay to conduct an 8-hour interview with the con man. However, he denies the fee was $250,000. It’s speculated McFarland offered such a lofty figure in hopes of squeezing FYRE for a fat payday.
While it’s unsavory that Fyre Fraud paid McFarland for an interview, the larger problem with the film is how the directors let him shape his narrative. In the trailer, McFarland’s involvement is the main hook. We see the documentarians ask him if he’s a sociopath, but they cut away before he can answer. It teases that you’ll get answers from him if you watch this doc. But that—as Ja Rule might say—is “false advertising.”
Fyre Fraud gives McFarland plenty of opportunity to spin his mythos of ambition, cleverness, and diligence. He gleefully recounts his first business, which mended crayons for a $1 apiece. He talks about his earliest cons, an arrogant glimmer in his eye, a crooked smile on his lips. He brags about the seeming success of his Millennial-aimed luxury credit card, Magnises. All of this gives us a greater context into the rise of McFarland, but it’s subject to his untrustworthy perspective. The filmmakers also bring in McFarland’s smitten girlfriend to tell us what a great guy he is, and they play character witness testimony from his mother. But inexplicably, it’s read by a stilted robot voice.
When it comes to Fyre Fest, McFarland gets tight-lipped. He briefly blames the internet, suggesting it’s a space where right and wrong are ambiguous at best. He gives lip service to responsibility, saying, “I was a big boy and I knew what I was getting into…It’s on me.” But he never admits to any fraud and instead insists he genuinely thought all the absolutely insurmountable obstacles of trying to plan a 10,000-person music festival with major acts on a desert island with no infrastructure was totally achievable. And in that interview, Furst and Nason refuse to challenge him.
It’s astonishing how often they will cut to McFarland’s reaction only for silence and blinking. He dismisses some questions, saying he refuses to share “private conversations” and others with “I’m not going to comment on any ongoing criminal proceedings.” It’s galling. And frankly, Fyre Fraud’s refusal to push back makes it feel like we the viewers have been conned because the answers teased are not given and the challenge suggested never comes. They do finally at the film’s end ask McFarland about being a liar, which he refutes. He insists they prove he lied. THEN Fyre Fraud intercuts his false statements with contradictory court findings, once more with a robo-voice reading them. This suggests they didn’t have the courage to call him to task in the actual interview, and only did it in postproduction. It’s odd and unsatisfying, especially when you know he was paid to sit there and play Kevin Hart to Fyre Fraud’s Ellen DeGeneres.
Beyond the cowardice of this key interview, Fyre Fraud is a disaster. The whole thing has the frenzied pacing of a trailer or a web video. There are a sloppy slew of rapid-fire montages that explain memes, FOMO (fear of missing out), influencers, and even Millennials with all the depth of a mason jar and all the charm of a Tosh.0 segment. Where FYRE made threads and arguments through first-person accounts and insider interviews, Fyre Fraud relies more on court documents, press recaps, and increasingly random clips from TV shows. It actually gets really annoying. Someone compares the Fyre Media corporate culture to The Office, so Fyre Fraud gleefully leaps to a clip of Michael and Dwight goofing about. Other abrupt cutaways are made to Family Guy, Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreations, all—by coincidence—are available on Hulu right now!
The scattershot approach and frantic pace of Fyre Fraud make it almost unwatchable. Honestly, if I weren’t watching it for work, I would have given up halfway through. For completists or true crime fans, there are some details here that FYRE left out, including a more thorough recounting of the suspicious rate at which General Admission passes sold out and the mayhem that unfolded at the Bahamas airport as fleeing Fyre Fest attendees arrived drunk and rowdy. But to get these you must wade through segments that strain to string together ideas in a cavalcade of silly stock footage, Rickrolls, dramatic chipmunk, cartoons, and a half-hearted parallel to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
It’s too much and too haphazard. And for all the things it rushes to include, it shows a shocking disregard for Fyre Fest’s most sympathetic victims. Fyre thoughtfully revealed how McFarland had swindled hundreds of villagers on Great Exuma into building Fyre Fest’s camps from scratch, then bailed before paying them. It centered this injustice on one noble local who lost her life savings because she trusted the slick American with big dreams and seemingly millions to spend. Her interview made this loss land amid so much chaos. But Fyre Fraud essentially reduces that whole matter to a title card, over which a rousing rendition of “Build Me Up Buttercup” callously plays.
In short, both Netflix’s FYRE and Hulu’s Fyre Fraud have credibility issues. So in a sense, it’s picking your poison. But if you’re looking for the better made and more comprehensive doc, it’s hands down FYRE on Netflix.
Header Image Source: Hulu