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Arts & Culture Opinion

Review: FYRE Festival

FYRE was funny. At least, it was funny to my friends and I as we skimmed the headlines and read the tweets about the festival in mid-2017. The “Coachella crowd” was already an oft-mocked group, and it embodied the worst of what many older people thought our generation was already like. Privileged, screen-dependent, soft. So when the influencers and attendees who shelled out thousands for a tropical festival got what appeared to be their cosmic comeuppance, I, and many others, laughed from the safety of our homes. Schadenfreude at its finest.

Netflix’s FYRE: The Greatest Party that Never Happened, one of the two new documentaries exploring the whole debacle, gives an in-depth portrait of the unsuccessful music festival that, in reality, isn’t as funny as it seems. Sold as a luxury music festival on Great Exuma, a beautiful Bahamian island previously owned by a drug lord, and featuring performances from massive bands and beautiful beach-side housing, FYRE was quickly revealed to be built on a bed of lies as attendees arrived to find tropical storms, hurricane tents, and cheese sandwiches. Blink-182, Wi-Fi, and running water were nowhere to be found. The company behind the festival, FYRE Media, had advertised something they had no ability to provide, and they continued to do so even as everything fell apart around them.

There are humorous moments in the FYRE documentary, but one mainly feels wide-eyed shock and sadness. Most of the interviewees aren’t portrayed as stuck-up and incompetent, as we’d hope, but as well-meaning people genuinely hurt by what went down: people like the hundreds of workers from Great Exuma who went unpaid, the employees of FYRE Media that were lied to and forced out of their jobs, and the lovable event producer, Andy King, who believed a bit too much in FYRE’s CEO and was forced to go to great lengths to help.

Who was the FYRE CEO that left a trail of destruction in his wake?

Supposed entrepreneurial wunderkind—and possible sociopath—Billy McFarland.

FYRE’s greatest strengths and weaknesses both stem from the fact that McFarland, except for in the occasional shot of him waving away reporters, is only seen in footage that he himself authorized. While Hulu’s FYRE Fraud documentary managed to snag an exclusive interview with McFarland himself, the FYRE team never directly questions the CEO. Because of this, FYRE’s only true villain remains an enigma. Whether intentionally or by necessity, this means that the film relies heavily on the recounted experiences of supporting characters, all of whom portray themselves as misled and blameless. (These experiences are gripping in their own right, especially in one unbelievable and heavily meme-ified scene of Andy King, but I still found myself left wanting to hear McFarland’s side of the story.)

The lack of blame for anyone besides McFarland in the greater media (both traditional and social) response to the festival is briefly touched upon, with some asking why the advertising companies and influencers responsible for the meteoric hype behind Fyre faced no consequences of their own. That said, this question was denied the screen time it deserved, a fact that is especially suspect because the main company behind promoting the festival, Jerry Media, produced the documentary.

The film also skims over other interesting social questions raised by the rise and fall of FYRE and McFarland, including the role of social media in promoting the festival and the lack of sympathy for anyone involved. That said, the primary focus is on detailing what happened behind the scenes to cause one of the greatest PR disasters in modern history. The film excels at this slow build up of dread as the festival approaches. The general series of events are all covered and most of the right people are talked to, but what truly separates FYRE are the small details. It is the eye rolls, the glances to the side, the pained pauses during interviews, Ja Rule shouting at models, and the almost symbolic spilling of beer onto the festival floor plan.

Using the immense amount of footage willingly compiled by McFarland and his promotional teams, along with interviews and news clips, this hour and a half long minute movie gives viewers an inside look at the trainwreck that they won’t find anywhere else (except maybe Hulu). They will likely find themselves unable to look away.

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