When Fyre Festival went down in flames in April of 2017, comedian Ron Funches was among the many who showed no sympathy for those who got scammed by Ja Rule’s failed music festival in the Bahamas: “If you have thousands of dollars to go on a trip to see Blink 182, that’s on you,” he told Conan. “That is Darwinism at its finest.”
That’s the kind of schadenfreude that ran rampant after someone at the fest tweeted a photo of the world’s saddest cheese sandwich. When Netflix announced that it was releasing a documentary about the fiasco, everyone got giddy again, no doubt imagining footage of social-media influencers huddling for warmth, contemplating cannibalism, and breaking down sobbing over inadequate thread counts.
Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, which hits Netflix Jan. 18, doesn’t actually offer much of that footage. Instead director Chris Smith (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond) has created one of the best studies of a narcissism-driven shitshow since Burden of Dreams, the documentary about the making of Fitzcarraldo. In that doc, director Werner Herzog completely ignored conventional wisdom as he tried to film on-location in the Amazon.
Just like Herzog, smirking entrepreneur Billy McFarland has utter faith in his vision as he conscripts hundreds of local workers— in this case, Bahamian day laborers who never got paid— into taming a forbidding terrain in a ridiculously inadequate amount of time. The difference, of course, is that Herzog somehow pulled it off and won Best Director at Cannes; McFarland failed spectacularly and was savaged on Twitter and sentenced to six years in federal prison.
Still, the parallels between the two projects are striking. At one point in Burden of Dreams, Herzog’s engineer resigns because he believes the director’s preferred method of getting a steamship over a ridge will likely get people killed. Herzog just proceeds without him. A similar fate befalls the project manager who tells McFarland that there aren’t adequate resources on Norman’s Cay, where the festival was originally going to be held (McFarland blew the deal by blabbing about how the island had supposedly once belonged to Pablo Escobar). After the project manager raises concerns about everything from plumbing to mosquitos, McFarland simply finds someone who can tell him what he wants to hear.
Though the filmmakers don’t get access to McFarland himself, they get a play-by-play from several Fyre employees, including a shell-shocked event producer who says McFarland talked him into blowing a customs officer for the release of truckloads of bottled water (lucky for him, he didn’t end up having to do the deed).
As you watch footage of McFarland—looking like a tubby Seth MacFarlane, drink in hand at all times, at one point passed out on the beach like a frat boy on spring break—you have to wonder how these employees had so much faith in him that they ignored all of the red flags. His business model seems to be Fake It Till You Make It and his charisma seems limited to a perpetual smirk and a connection to rapper Ja Rule. (Their favorite toast is captured on film: “Here’s to living like movie stars, partying like rock stars, and fucking like porn stars.”)
What really makes Fyre different from Burden of Dreams is that it takes place in 2017, when social media is capable of sparking mass hysteria. At one point, as McFarland creepily tries to convince some supermodels to go running into the water after him, he explains to them, “We’re selling a pipe dream to the average loser.”
Social media, of course, made it all too easy to sell that pipe dream. Kendall Jenner was reportedly paid $250,000 to post about the festival, and those models who appeared in the promo video were reportedly offered $35,000 each for publicizing it. Tickets sold out quickly, because who wouldn’t pay $9,000 to be able to brag about being on #PabloEscobarsPrivateIsland?
Sure, there’s some pleasure in watching “influencers” and bottle-service bros get catfished into hanging out in a glorified refugee camp, but it quickly evaporates when you realize that some of these shameless selfie-seekers ended up winning $5 million in a lawsuit while a Bahamian restaurateur who made the mistake of catering for Fyre lost some $50,000 of her life savings. Not to mention all the staffers of Fyre who got, well, burned.