Review: ‘Fyre’ explores the consequences of willful ignorance

by Willem Gerrish | 2/5/19 2:35am

It was one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time: a pristine launch video showing supermodels swimming in bikinis on an island once owned by Pablo Escobar, a series of cryptic orange tiles posted online by celebrities and Instagram influencers and the promise of an immersive music experience in the Bahamas called Fyre Festival. In reality, it was an utter disaster; gourmet meals became two slices of cheese on soggy bread, luxury villas became disaster-relief tents and Fyre Festival became a colossal failure of the millennial age.

Such is the subject of the new Netflix documentary “Fyre,” written and directed by Chris Smith, the man behind the well-received documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.” In this documentary, Smith sets his sights on one of the most spectacular scams of the modern era — Fyre Festival — and the result is a fantastic and engrossing movie that captures the terrible consequences of millennial wealth and willful ignorance.

I find the story of the Fyre Festival so interesting because it is perfectly indicative of society’s fixations on celebrity and the veneer of wealth as exacerbated by social media. It was an event born and bred online, spread via the Instagram pages of celebrities such as Kendall Jenner and Emily Ratajkowski, who were paid exorbitant sums for their support. Wealthy millennials perusing their iPhones immediately picked up on the advertising campaign, and it became an unmissable opportunity: the chance to party with celebrities on a private island in the Bahamas, drinking liquor and lounging on the beach with money as only an afterthought. It’s that Gatsby-like fetishization of wealth brought into the modern age, and to see it all implode has that poetic feeling of inevitability that seems closer to fiction than reality.

But just how did Fyre Festival manage to fail in such utter and grandiose fashion? That’s the question that Smith sets out to answer in “Fyre,” and the heart of his conclusion lies in one man: Billy McFarland. McFarland was a college dropout-turned-entrepreneur who made his first stream of wealth on a company called Magnises that offered a black card experience to young urbanites willing to pay a yearly fee. He was capitalizing on his sense that millennials wanted luxury and exclusivity, and he was right — people ate it up. But McFarland had the problem of promising more than he could ever procure, and Magnises began to fail when much of what it offered was revealed as a pipe dream. When he then thought up Fyre Festival, McFarland carried with him the same tendency to forget about reality. He sold people on the idea that lustrous and elusive dream of a tropical bacchanal filled with celebrities and music. No one seemed to realize that an event of this magnitude would require massive investments of time and money, not to mention infrastructure, transportation, catering, housing and all of the other factors that go into making a getaway festival a reality. But McFarland was positive and electric, and so people kept following him along until they were in too deep. 

“Fyre” does an impressive job of working around McFarland to get an idea of what it was like on the inside as Fyre Festival began to collapse. The man himself is currently in prison serving a six-year sentence for fraud, so Smith interviews those around him to piece together a picture of destruction from the inside out. More than anything, the underlying problem for Fyre Festival was an ignorance of reality. McFarland and his team seemed to operate under the idea that they could live in their own universe, a place without limitations or consequences. In one stunning example, they acquired the Bahamian island of Norman’s Cay on the strict stipulation that they not mention its ownership by Pablo Escobar. But then, in the promotional video for Fyre Festival, there was direct reference to “Pablo Escobar’s private island,” and McFarland’s contract to hold the island was immediately terminated. This was just the beginning of a great scramble of incompetence that sent Fyre Festival hurtling toward disaster. To make matters worse, McFarland was operating with about two months’ time before festivalgoers would start arriving. As one organizer explains in the film, festivals typically require about 12 months of planning and preparing, and McFarland had six to eight weeks.  

Some of the most revealing footage in the documentary are the shots captured on iPhones and security cameras that show McFarland exuding incompetence and scrambling to keep his tepid dream afloat. There’s him passed out on the sand in broad daylight holding a beer; him telling his team that “we’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser”; him pacing nervously in his first sign of weakness as the festival is disintegrating around him. And in a sickly comedic twist, Ja Rule is there the whole time providing support, at one point telling McFarland and his team after the festival, “That’s not fraud. That is, uh, I would call that false advertising.” Yet what they did was fraud, and a federal court in Manhattan agreed. 

The scary thing is that McFarland apparently didn’t learn his lesson. After the Fyre Festival disaster and the collapse of Fyre Media, Inc., McFarland immediately started a new scam called NYC VIP Access that offered impossible luxury ticket options to would-be Fyre Festival attendees. It’s astonishing how easily this man will lie, cheat and steal to make his next dollar, and it only makes me wonder what sort of scheme he is getting ready to employ the day he walks out of jail. 

“Fyre” proves to be an engaging and necessary portrait of all that can go wrong when one fixates on wealth and celebrity without the requisite integrity to back it up. McFarland’s story is really one of a tragically flawed character, a man who believed in the dream of pure pleasure and excess without a sense of the cost that sort of lifestyle incurs. He hoped to go down in history as the entrepreneur of a generation, but now he’s building the legacy of a scam artist lost in the never-ending party of his imagination.