Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened
Rice University (US)
The following is a review of two films: Fyre Fraud (hosted by Hulu) and Fyre: The Greatest Party that Never Happened (hosted by Netflix). Both films document Fyre Festival, a 2017 music festival that continues to be the focus of controversy, particularly with respect to its promotional methods. Both films give accounts of the leadup, occurrence and fallout of the festival, were released within a week of each other and share some interlocutors. Some of these individuals are named in million-dollar court cases, some were deceived and manipulated by people in positions of authority, and many have competing interests in the landscape of industrial taste-making. The films are already in deep conversation with each other.
The narrative recounted in both films bears repeating: entrepreneur Billy McFarland and musician Ja Rule join forces to produce a luxury festival in the Bahamas. They enlist a team of powerful media companies, raise millions from private investors, and promise extravagant experiences to a client base of Instagram elites that they do not deliver. The media companies lose money and look dishonest, investors lose money and look disconnected from reality, and popular lifestyle influencers lose money and look naïve. Hundreds of Bahamians work hundreds of unpaid hours, but this remains in the background of the public shaming of so many venerable contemporary American institutions.
The documentaries are in general agreement about who the villain is here: Billy McFarland is accused of being a “compulsive liar”, “scammer”, “hustler” and “Dr. Evil”. In Fraud, McFarland appears as an interviewee of the filmmakers. Fyre, on the other hand, uses footage of McFarland that was originally collected by the teams hired to promote the festival during the leadup to the festival. Both films are ruthless in their condemnation of his character.
Released on 14 January 2019 and directed by the team of Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, Fyre Fraud hit streaming platform Hulu four days before the release of Netflix’s counterpart. An array of interviewees—lawyers, journalists, cultural critics and culture industry bureaucrats—contemplate topics including FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), the distribution of culpability in networked authority structures, the vulnerable psychology of millennials, the ethos of tumult that is Wall Street and the susceptibility of developing regions to first-world frauds all in relation to the Fyre Festival.
Fraud is strong in its detailing of McFarland’s earlier business ventures—for example a credit card or an app for booking celebrities—setting the stage for his more ambitious project. It does so with the assistance of some of his former employees and McFarland himself, who narrates his lifelong entrepreneurial development. McFarland is adamant that he had the best intentions to put on an event that was “going to change the landscape [of the festival industry], and deliver an experience that people would talk about for years” (Fraud 9:00).
Other key individuals are featured. The brightly lit, smiley Calvin Wells, a principal investor for a New York City firm, appears prominently in Fraud. Concerned by the amount of money people in his networks were investing in Fyre Festival and distrustful of McFarland, Wells attempted, unsuccessfully, to delegitimize the festival by critiquing its questionable promotions. He blames this failure on the impotence of the facts in this social-media dominated, “post-truth” world, but seems at times more impressed than incensed by the persuasive campaign assembled by the Fyre Festival team and the companies they contracted for media production and marketing. Oren Aks, the former Jerry Media employee assigned to their contract with Fyre Festival, is also interviewed. Seated behind a laptop, as if reenacting the tricks and techniques he used to promote the festival, he shares his two cents regarding the manipulation of social media and the recipe for a viral trend and his dismay at realizing he had been deceived about the product he had advertised.
Bahamians in the film call out the unjust treatment they suffered at the hands of the Fyre Festival. Delroy Jackson recounts warning McFarland and Ja Rule that organizational and construction resources were inadequate given the short timeline. Ava Turnquest, a reporter for local news outlet The Tribune, accuses Fyre Festival of unoriginality in scamming the Bahamas; a place “so ripe for fraud” (Fraud 26:30). She portrays the festival as a predictable result of deplorable economic relations between the US and Bahamas, as proof of the persistence of colonial attitudes so coherent with the conditions of contemporary pop culture.
Jia Tolentino, a staff writer for The New Yorker, joins Turnquest in her diagnosis. Interviewed in front of floor-to-ceiling high-rise windows, Tolentino discusses Fyre Festival in relation to its conditions of possibility, in relation to the forces which dominate contemporary culture. Tolentino illustrates the intricate and fragile relation between subject and society, suggesting: “Billy [McFarland] is baked in the oven of millennial reality construction that asserts itself in response to the precarity of the times” (Fraud 10:10). These analyses, albeit blithe in tone, contribute nuance to questions of legal and ethical responsibility central to the film.
In addition, Fraud introduces three Instagram influencers, the festival’s target clientele, who recount arriving at the festival, struggling for orientation, and departing. Tolentino provides us with a succinct definition of an influencer. “An influencer is someone who has effectively monetized their identity. That is their work: the performance of an attractive life” (Fraud 32:05). They also contribute personal action-style footage of the crisis (empty stages, beach drinking, wandering in the dark, hoarding toilet paper). But Fraud does not introduce any attendees who suffered more severe physical injury than surprise, boredom or dehydration.
Fraud finally interviews Anastasia Eremenko, McFarland’s girlfriend. She reads aloud letters he sends her from prison and is shown after one of his court dates weeping alone in the street. Eremenko is adamant about the swirling misrepresentations of McFarland’s character, steadfast in her support of him. And mixed into shots that suggest her continued backing of this irredeemable villain, the film concludes that “it’s a great time to be a conman in America” (Fraud 1:33:45).
Building from conversations with the above and other interlocutors, Fyre Fraud uses Fyre Festival to frame “the nexus of social media influence, late-stage capitalism, and morality in the post-truth era” (publicity material; see “Fyre Fraud: Details”). The festival serves as a ready-made material specificity through which the film’s experts weave abstract threads of contemporary popular culture. But despite these strengths, the production feels heavy-handed; the film relies on bland-yet-antsy collages of stock visuals and cheap-looking b-roll from generic festival scenes of attractive women dancing or crowds walking. Long awkward pauses after McFarland speaks in interviews imply volumes about his trustworthiness, but do so pedantically. Viewers might therefore understand the film to enact some of the very culture it critiques, namely one that values the speed and spectacular quality of visual electronic media over the story or material reality it represents.
Hot on the heels of Fraud came Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, released by Netflix on January 18th, 2019 and directed by Chris Smith (also American Movie, The Pool). The production is sleek, the pacing confident, and in contrast to Fraud’s stock visuals much of the footage is original. Fyre attends to moments leading up to the festival to offer viewers a prime view of the planning process and blooming drama.
Fyre includes abundant footage of McFarland and Ja Rule leading organizational efforts, making definitive and questionable decisions in meetings, talking social media strategy and selling their brand. Multiple times we hear them reiterate their pitch: “We’re selling a pipe dream to your average American loser!” (Fyre 12:05). The film’s interlocutors affirm that McFarland once fell asleep with a beer in his hand on the beach, that he would ride a jetski in time-sensitive moments, even that he resembled Dr. Evil (Fyre 1:09:40). But most of this individual critique is reserved specifically for McFarland; despite the damning documentation that Fyre publishes, Ja Rule sustains little direct individual critique.
Much of the juicy visual content was collected on site in the Bahamas by MATTE Projects, a video production company contracted by Fyre Festival. Brett Kincaid, director of MATTE, testifies unapologetically to the quality of the work. He says of Fyre, “they were hiring the best of the best in each category: best talent, best distribution, best social media company” (Fyre 6:45). He makes sure viewers appreciate how his team produced and launched a video that trended globally from an island without internet, offering an interesting take on the accusations of false advertising and fraudulent promotion levelled against Fyre Festival and its teams. According to Kincaid, the real Fyre Festival was the smaller-scale event that occurred during “the shoot [for the viral video]. The shoots were parties . . . the commercial was what everybody wanted” (Fyre 1:30:12).
Jerry Media is a company that generates online attention and social influence for clients; it is that “best social media company” named by Kincaid and hired by Fyre, and also the executive producer who partnered with Vice in the creation of this documentary. CEO Mick Purzycki represents Jerry Media for the film. His script—just like the film—is sleek, persistent, and confident in explaining to the viewer the victimization his company suffered at the hands of Fyre Festival. But he too claims that there was substance and value in the work they did, asserting that his employers were “trying to tap into a culture and a zeitgeist that they believed in” (Fyre 14:00). For Purzycki as for Kincaid, the inspiration was far from bunk, and if there was never a problem with the original inspiration, how can anyone fault those who had a contract to promote that inspiration using social media? Purzycki does admit, however, that in the days prior to the festival Jerry Media deleted “the negative comments that were degrading the brand” from Fyre Festival’s social media presence (Fyre 44:45). In other words, Jerry Media hid complaints and questions about festival details to prevent attendees from discovering that the festival infrastructure looked quite different from the promotional material.
Marc Weinstein, a music festival consultant and Fyre Festival contractor, describes his failed attempts at convincing the leadership to be honest about their insufficient preparation time, about the fact that it was not going to be a luxury experience and about attendees becoming trapped on the island with no available return flights. But Weinstein admits that each time he was rebuked, he put his head down and attempted to complete his assignments, to maintain the chain of command, to play his role in this peculiar machine. Andy King, an event producer who styles himself “Billy [McFarland]’s whisperer,” also wonders about his responsibility for continuously vetting McFarland’s personal character to the festival team for the good of the event (Fyre 1:12:20).
Maryann Rolle, a Bahamian restaurateur, might have appreciated more critical thought from Jerry Media, Weinstein and company. Feeding staff, influencers and attendees with little preparation time, Rolle tells viewers she lost $50,000 of savings trying to host the big American money hinting at long-term investment. J.R., a Bahamian who organized local laborers for Fyre Festival, recounts fleeing for safety after the festival because those laborers had turned to him seeking payment. Fyre Festival leadership had vanished in the wind.
Following the festival, McFarland was charged with tampering with wire transfers. But after posting bail he continued to sell tickets for haute events in New York City; tickets which often did not exist. At that point Gabrielle Bluestone, a Vice reporter who also contributes to the film, published an article linking McFarland to sustained fraudulent activities while still on bail (Bluestone 2018). McFarland was arrested again, this time without possibility of posting bail.
The effect of interspersing contributions from critics like Bluestone with interlocutors like Purzycki—especially when they align in tutti condemnation of McFarland the Naughty—is the same as the effect of Jerry Media co-producing this film with Vice whilst repurposing their own video footage. Jerry Media’s self-promotion is not completely unabashed, but it is thorough. Fyre submits that the promotion was the most real—maybe even the only real thing—about Fyre Festival. Fyre is a statement, in form as in content, about the power of social media technologies. Kincaid sums up this morass of deferred accountability with another quippy analogy: “If you shoot a commercial for BMW, how are you supposed to know if that car has a faulty engine?” (Fyre 1:16:50). Accordingly, perhaps we can consider Fyre as much promotion as it is documentary.
The two films reviewed differ in several ways. Fyre Fraud is preoccupied with the question of assigning responsibility for social media influence. Fyre Fraud’s viewer feels ethically superior to the clear villains and awestruck by the naivete of those swept up in their schemes, because all of this apparent chaos fits into a clean, almost algorithmic state-of-the-world. Meanwhile, Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened demonstrates the capabilities of social media technologies. It is a crisis take to Fraud’s algorithm, an illustration of real power fallen into the wrong hands.
But both play blame games about who is responsible for the millions of dollars demanded by workers, investors, contractors, lawyers and others. Both document the professional turn of social media identity and the attendant rise in the influence of models with popular social media identities. And both make us feel like we all need a good read of Baudrillard’s Simulacrum and Simulation. Viewed side-by-side, the two films provide us with spectacular material for reflecting not just on right and wrong in contemporary social media culture, but also real and fake. We are left puzzled: Were the original intentions valid? Who is responsible for viral momentum? And might the festival have happened after all?
Baudrillard, Jean. 1983. Simulations. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e).
Bluestone, Gabrielle. 2018. “Fyre Fest’s Founder is Going to Prison, but the Spirit of His Scam Lives On”. Vice News, 12 June. <https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/a3ayma/fyre-fests-founder-is-going-to-prison-but-the-spirit-of-his-scam-lives-on> (accessed 9 September 2019).
“Fyre Fraud: Details”. Hulu, 14 January 2019. <https://www.hulu.com/movie/fyre-fraud-e47078f3-1c0e-49a8-9da9-c571a7a20fec> (accessed 5 September 2019).