Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

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Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

Georgetown University’s Newspaper of Record since 1920

The Hoya

‘Fyre’ Documents, Downplays Viral Festival Failure


Netflix’s new documentary “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” documents the mishap of Fyre Festival, a fraudulent music festival that advertised luxury on a private island in the Bahamas but eventually left festivalgoers stranded on the little Bahamian district of Exuma in 2017.

The documentary was released four days after “Fyre Fraud,” rival streaming service Hulu’s documentary on the festival. While Netflix’s “Fyre” is aesthetically pleasing and well-made, it struggles to tackle the absurdity of its subject matter: the naivete of both social media influencers and their followers.

VICE STUDIOS | “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened” documents the perils of advertising through social media influencers with the failure of the Fyre Festival. When guests landed on the Bahamian district of Exuma, they were met with surprise, as the island was filled with disaster relief tents and inadequate food and water supplies.

“Fyre” explores the behind-the-scenes planning — or lack thereof — of Fyre Festival as orchestrated by charismatic snake-oil-salesman and bro-culture exemplar Billy McFarland. The festival was originally conceived as a way to build brand exposure for rapper Ja Rule’s app Fyre, a medium for users to book musicians for private events. It gained social media buzz as models like Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner promoted the festival on their Instagram pages and appeared in bombastic promotional videos.

“Fyre” was directed by Chris Smith, who also directed the well-received Netflix original documentary “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond.” Building off his previous experience producing popular documentaries, Smith hones in on the age of the social media influencer to portray the depth to which investors and the general public were defrauded.

Fyre Festival itself garnered middling attention in mainstream media outlets but became a phenomenon on social media, where it went viral after the disparity between the festival and its original marketing campaign was revealed.

Smith deftly portrayed this virality by using the promotional footage of super models on jet skis and yachts in clear blue water as well as screen grabs of the social media stars that would fool hundreds of young people with disposable incomes and high hopes of Instagram clout.

The documentary juxtaposes this glamorous social media campaign of the festival with the unavoidable fact that no one on the Fyre team had the logistical knowledge or funds to support the endeavor. Smith uses footage from the preproduction shenanigans of Ja Rule and McFarland to show how disturbingly ill-prepared the stakeholders were to provide the experience that they had contrived through false advertising. The venture appears to be an opulent ego trip for McFarland, who in one scene is shown passed out on a beach while his employees work to create promotional material.

The documentary falters in its portrayal of the festival itself. The first half of the documentary builds a sense of impending dread for the doomed festival. The portion dedicated to showing the fiasco of the festival and the effect on defrauded customers, however, is underwhelming.

Smith uses smartphone footage from young, good-looking and undoubtedly wealthy social media influencers as they experienced the festival. While the goal of the video is to show how chaotic the experience is for the festivalgoers, it is hard to feel sympathy for them as they complain about being on a plane which is “as bad as economy class.”

Although McFarland is portrayed as a manipulative mastermind of the failed festival, the film’s main takeaway was the gullibility of the young elites who had been so easily hoodwinked by the promise of supermodels and white sand beaches. While watching the smartphone videos taken by vapid influencers in their Coachella-esque garb on their way to the festival, one cannot help but find it absurd that they would soon be eating cheese sandwiches in repurposed disaster relief tents. Smith makes sure to comment on this absurdity by showing the media backlash in which festivalgoers were ridiculed for paying thousands of dollars “to go see a Blink-182 concert.”

Smith consciously avoids building sympathy for the festivalgoers, but he takes care to show the true victims of the endeavor: the employees and workers who were led to believe the festival would be a success. He comments on the Bahamian day workers who were left without wages and includes a somber interview with a restaurant owner on the island who used her own savings to pay the workers who helped her provide food for the event.

Overall, “Fyre” handles its subject matter well. Smith knows his audience of social media-conscious Netflix users, but he does not sensationalize or overplay his viral source material. While it may be absurd, “Fyre” ultimately shows the effects of luxury gone wrong and how much people are willing to pay for nothing more than the guise of excess. Though the film may be far from social commentary, the topic is still worth examining in our Instagram age.
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