Does anybody need two movies at the same time about the same music-festival fiasco? I don’t. Yet in keeping with the excess unspooled in both, here they are anyway: two documentaries about the Fyre Festival — Netflix’s “Fyre” and Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” — an event for which lots of young people paid lots of money and got nothing in return but international mockery. The movies have footage, guests, formal devices and sneering in common. Releasing one within spitting distance of the other is like opening a Walgreens across the street from a CVS. They’re different and the same. Even so, “Fyre” is fine. “Fyre Fraud” is better.
“Fyre” hurls the swindle at its center like a bowling ball. The movie, which Chris Smith directed, finds the players in and around a 2017 scheme to pull a music festival out of thin air: software programmers, marketing people, expert event planners, laborers, the bilked. They make it clear that Fyre probably never could have been a success, and even if you know the story of how it wasn’t, nothing stops you from rooting against it anyway. It was conceived in both bad faith and bad taste, as part of a collaboration between Billy McFarland, a 20-something con man from New Jersey, the beached middle-aged rapper Ja Rule, and a fleet of Instagram influencers.
Hundreds of people bought tickets to a party on an island in the Bahamas promoted, fictionally, as once belonging to the drug lord and murderer Pablo Escobar. They were promised a luxe weekend and got soggy mattresses instead. Each movie consists of talking-head interviews. But the meat of Smith’s movie is the footage, handsome footage — of meetings, conference calls and promotional shoots; of what happened when all those kids sought food, water and a desperate exit.
You watch both movies in a kind of fascinated horror at how easy it was for McFarland to create a network of what appears to be unwitting co-conspirators to help him plan an experience that wound up losing $24 million. So many people mention how seductive and magnetic McFarland is that you also watch both movies expecting them to inspect his magnetism. To see him in Smith’s film, reveling in footage taken by other people — this chubby, gangly, awkward but not not handsome slouch who himself seems attracted to fame, power, wealth and sand — is to wonder whether those same people needed a magnet in their lives, especially one who could make them some money.
“Fyre” needs another layer. You can locate in it this national moment of brashness and effrontery. (Even after McFarland has been arrested, as he was in June 2017, and released on bail, he cooks up another sham business. As you read this, he’s serving six years in prison after pleading guilty to wire fraud.) But the Hulu documentary, by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby, does more than locate. It unpacks, analyzes and jabs.
“Fyre” is an ethics thriller. “Fyre Fraud” is a behavioral farce. It has arguments to make about the insecurities of millennials and the perniciousness of social media. And the arguments don’t feel like blather. The sharpest parts of Smith’s “Fyre,” which is a co-production of Vice Studios and, apparently, Jerry Media, the marketing bros who helped sell the festival in the first place, are throwaway observations, like the one someone makes about how a single tweet of a sad sandwich demolished the image of a hot event that it took an armada of supermodels to help sell.
Smith’s movie does have a devastating moment with a Bahamian woman still recovering — emotionally and financially — from the compassion she showed the Fyre flies who swarmed her poor restaurant. Both do a fine job of having Ja Rule incriminate himself on calls and in the media. But the Hulu movie is more comprehensively damning, in part because it goes farther with the cultural story and in part because the filmmakers have access to what’s missing from the other film: McFarland, who stonewalls and swivels through the tougher questions. The filmmakers reportedly had to pay him to do it. So the bad judgment extends even to the movies about the bad judgment.
Nonetheless, reconstructing how Fyre burned a lot of people is not a small thing. I left Smith’s movie irked that it doesn’t attempt to show who McFarland was or to explain him as fully as it could. (His participation, paid but preferably otherwise, wouldn’t have been necessary.) I suppose it’s hard to get to the bottom of these pathological seducers. The makers of that trashy but effective new R. Kelly documentary series certainly had a hell of time.
In “Surviving R. Kelly” and Smith’s film, that void could just mean the real story is about the victims, enablers and suckers — or even about us. But when people in both Fyre movies say that they’re positive McFarland will strike again, what’s in order is the deeper, more cautionary examination of him that’s in “Fyre Fraud.” Not because that prediction is wrong. But because I wouldn’t put anything past this country. McFarland really might have another act. Maybe as a con artist. Maybe as someone more, I don’t know, elected.