The Fyre musical festival was supposed to be a dream come true for its attendees. Rapper Ja Rule and Millennial entrepreneur Billy McFarland conceived an experience where you could “live like a movie star, party like a rock star, and fuck like a porn star.” Some coughed up $250,000 to secure their spot at this event that was supposed to be staged on a private island, studded with villas, catered with authentic international cuisine, and peopled with some of the most popular models and influencers on Instagram. But what they got was distilled in one infamous image of a pitiful cheese sandwich. The how of this absolute disaster is unearthed in the Netflix documentary FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened. And much like watching this Fyre mess unfold on social media, this doc is a wild ride.
The story of Fyre fest is told by those who lived through it, chiefly members of McFarland’s Fyre Media, which was a start-up pitched as Uber for booking talent. You wanted Ja Rule to play your birthday party? Fyre Media could make it happen. The festival was conceived as a means of promoting this business. And while it takes months to years to get most music fests up and running, McFarland hired an army of people to birth his brainchild to life in weeks. He brought in go-getters with no experience and gave them company credit cards and huge responsibilities, but no authority when things started going sideways. He brought in seasoned professionals to utilize their expertise, then routinely ignored their advice. When the logistics for his dream were deemed impossible by staff, he chided them not to be “problem-focused.” This created a horrific corporate culture of distrust, deception, and depravity where employees were asked to do seedy things to keep things running. Without spoilers: the “take one for the team” anecdote is one of the most shocking I’ve ever heard in a business-centric doc.
There was a delectable schadenfreude to watching the ludicrous failure of the Fyre musical festival unfold online. Those of us who could never afford to spend $250k to see Blink 182 play on an island rumored to have been owned by Pablo Escobar were ruthlessly entertained by the images of stranded rich kids sulking in surplus hurricane tents. There were memes and mocking, and most of it at the expense of the victims of this con job. With a montage of social media reactions and a tone of “you won’t believe what happened next”, FYRE leans into this shady pleasure, but also gives voice to these victims, interviewing several attendees. Still, it spares few tears for them, revealing how quickly these fools parted from their money turned into feral jackasses on that island. One attendee admits with a smug grin that he and his friends destroyed several of the tents—tearing holes in the side, stealing their mattresses or pissing on them—to make a buffer between them and any would-be neighbors in an already overcrowded campsite.
A greater sympathy is extended to those who worked for McFarland. Yes, they played their part in this charade. But—if they are too be believed—McFarland held them captive through their finances. One former employee relays how 70 percent of his fee was being held until after the festival, so he couldn’t quit without a major loss. Others worried how the fest’s failure would hurt their reputations and so did whatever it took to contribute however they could. But McFarland’s outlandish demands doomed them all. Afterward, as he looked to write a new chapter in his life, Fyre Media employees were left exhausted, unpaid, unemployed, and in debt! FYRE also speaks to the locals on the Bahamas island where the fest landed, revealing how this white American entrepreneur, with an undeniable charm, conned a whole village to build his festival from the ground up, then vanished before payday. It is here where we see tears. A big-hearted local trusted McFarland enough that not only did she work for him, but also she urged many friends and neighbors to follow her to Fyre jobs. When he took off leaving massive debts, she refused to let them go unpaid. So, she gave over her own life’s savings, not for him but for them. Because someone always has to pay.
You might think you know the story of Fyre fest. But FYRE widens the scope beyond McFarland’s catastrophic event, into his earlier sketchy dealings making a credit card made of metal and meant to appeal to Millennial millionaires. It takes you into the lives he’s ruined and his next shameless con. Amid all this, FYRE ponders if it was hubris, greed, or delusion that drove McFarland. Then toward the end, documentarian Chris Smith suggests it’s partially the privilege of being a white male in America. An associate of McFarland’s recalls with astonishment how the infamous entrepreneur was convinced he’d never serve time for his crimes or face any real consequences for his actions. Watching this story unfold, the unnerving realization creeps in about how America’s obsession with the displays of wealth and the promise of it creates monsters like McFarland, and how our justice system is woefully ill-equipped to battle back against them.
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened is an enlightening, entertaining, and absolutely infuriating documentary about a music festival that thrived then died because of social media. At moments, its conspiratorial vibe feels like a friend sharing juicy gossip. But Smith digs deeper to show the damage wrought by Fyre fest, and by McFarland. What we’re left with are uncomfortable truths about American culture and no easy answers.
FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened hits Netflix January 18.