The Fyre Festival was to be an elite luxury musical festival, scheduled to take place in the late spring of 2017 on a private island in the Bahamas. The buzz seemed to say it would be the Woodstock for the millennial generation. But it was something doomed from the start thanks to, first, the fact that it’s impossible to plan something like that in six months but most importantly because the scam artist creating it, Billy Mcfarland, probably cared more about the idea of Fyre Festival than actually giving anyone what they paid for. And that is the focus of not one, but two recently released documentaries. The very slick Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened is on Netflix, and the obviously cheaper but perhaps more incisive Fyre Fraud is on Hulu. To get the whole story, I say watch both.
From the beginning, Fyre Festival was always about creating something that would give you instant FOMO (Fear of missing out, if you didn’t know). Nearly every social media influencer of note was posting about this new festival. The top models of the moment were part of the promo material. The messaging was clear. Party with us at Fyre or regret it forever. It was the promise to eat great food, see great music, and hang out with the most beautiful people in the world.
But from the beginning it all seemed to be be built on empty promises. Artists were never paid. Investors were lied too. In the documentaries we learn Fyre was just a continuation of Billy’s early scams, this time with aging rapper Ja Rule by this side and a lot more money. Billy seemed to be a man selling FOMO to keep himself from ever having any; constantly throwing bigger parties, driving better cars. Billy was selling the look of a life he may have never earned. All while somehow gaining incredible loyalty from those around him, some willing to do completely unprintable, debasing things simply because he asked them too. That same person then finds him wishing Billy doesn’t end up in prison. In the Netflix documentary a worker from the island complains about Billy never paying him or any of his workers only to happily answer his phone when Billy calls later. In the Hulu film we hear the words of many willing to speak on his behalf in court proceedings. It’s almost like the people feared not getting to be a part of what he created, and he used that to his full advantage.
Here’s another crazy thing. The Netflix doc was produced in part by the same production company, Jerry Media, who ran Fyre’s social media and initially helped them cover up how bad things actually were. One could argue their hand in the film is them scamming us into believing in their own hands are clean. The Hulu documentary certainly throws Jerry Media under the bus, but in its own shady dealings pays Billy Mcfarland to to be interviewed. And giving that guy money is just sketchy, even if they certainly did him no favors in how they portrayed him.
It’s easy to watch the news about Fyre as it happened, and see funny videos of the probably spoiled kids stranded on the island and think it’s funny. Those kids deserved it, or whatever. But one thing I loved about both documentaries is they reminded us that defrauding people isn’t cool no matter who the victims are. Plus these films highlighted the most frustrating but forgotten pool of victims in the first place. The thousands of Bahamian workers who are still unpaid.
On a personal level, I also loved that these films reminded me of the ways I let Instagram fool me every day. One of the event planners, Marc Weinstein, speaks in the Netflix documentary about his social media activity during the planning of the doomed event. Even when he was totally miserable, freaking out knowing he was working so hard for something that he was seeing more and more was both doomed and shady, he still pretended to be happy in his Instagram posts. It was all still pictures of the beaches, saying how lucky he was to be working where he was. It seems crazy, but I wonder how often we do the same. I’m not buying into sociopathic Billy Mcfarland level lies, I hope. But every time I scroll and get jealous of somebody’s life, it’s liking buying tickets to an overpriced festival that might really just be a bunch FEMA tents on the beach.
Strange Perspective is a weekly look at all things pop culture by Progress columnist Rachel Strange.