“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser,” Fyre Festival founder Billy McFarland says excitedly in the new documentary Fyre, drink in hand, to a group of supermodels around a bonfire in the Bahamas. Nobody else planning the festival seems to understand why the models were recruited to shoot a video promo for it, and the models don’t seem entirely sure what they’re supposed to be selling. But McFarland is there to set the record straight: Fyre Festival is a fantasy for your average, all-American bro. What he craves are pristine beaches populated with women he’s only ever seen in magazines, sushi dinners that cost more than an average month’s rent, and music from such renowned acts as... Blink-182.
And mining what appears to be weeks of behind-the-scenes footage of the festival’s conception and brutal failure, Chris Smith’s new documentary Fyre is an incredible deep-dive into how the bumbling, dweebish frat boy in businessman’s clothing McFarland torpedoed his festival into a viral disaster. But it’s also a compelling snapshot of the naiveté of whitebread American bros, so out of touch with reality that they’ve never considered that their raucous adventures might have consequences or that their tacky dream vacation might be a scam. Watching the organizers of Fyre trip over themselves, you know the festival’s demise can’t just be attributed to a gross lack of funds or prep. This was an event helmed and coveted by young men whose grandiose fantasies, coagulated into a music festival, were built to fail from the start. And when the world never places limits on your desires, why would you do so yourself? Boys will be boys, and boy are they fun to watch.
On paper, a documentary about Fyre Festival doesn’t seem immediately enticing. The audience watched this baby burn in real time and has heard the cries of countless disgruntled attendees, some of which have made their complaints in court. What more of this viral spectacle do we need to consume? But while Fyre includes dozens of interviews after the fact with those who planned the festival, employees from the Bahamas construction site, and attendees who arrived, its the mountain of footage taken during the festival conception and preparation that accounts for the compelling bulk of the movie. It’s these scenes, of glib meetings with investors—and Ja Rule and McFarland cackling on boats about how everyone just lapped up their supermodel —that make the movie feel like a pressure cooker.
McFarland builds Fyre Festival like a staircase that would eventually acquire steps. Mark Musters, a creative director, says he recommended a budget of around $38 million for the festival, but talent booker Samuel Krost, who was picked at random to book headliners, says the music artists were “grossly overpaid” at $3.5 to $4 million. Influencers invited were promised housing for free, which was difficult considering Fyre was booked during the Bahama’s biggest event, the Regatta. And when McFarland goes against the island owner’s wishes by stating in the now-infamous commercial that it was previously Pablo Escobar’s, the event is kicked out and forced to relocate to the Great Exumas, where barely any of the ticket-buyers could even fit on the island.
What’s staggering is the way McFarland literally makes up the festival as he goes along, thinking of something those “average losers” will salivate over and working backwards. In one meeting, he brags about how easy it can be to drain more money from attendees, offering the idea of doing a Kendall Jenner yacht party for “$10,000 a head,” and according to an engineer for the Fyre company Michael Ciccarelli, McFarland lied to investors that he had booked Drake for the festival to entice them.
In one of the more shocking attempts to bypass the rules, Andy King, an event producer, says that McFarland called him up one day and asked him to “take something for the team.” Billy reportedly asked that because King was their “wonderful, gay leader,” would he go down and “suck dick to fix this water problem?” McFarland wanted King to perform oral sex on the head of customs for the Bahamas so that they would release four 18 wheeler trucks full of Evian for free, as they were asking McFarland to pay $175,000 to release it. And so King, who in the present laughs at this, gets ready to do so, only to be assured customs would indeed release the precious Evian.
With guests paying thousands of dollars a ticket, Fyre Festival was a gluttonous event to outsiders, but the gluttony of McFarland is still galling. The festival exploded a year before the 2018 “summer of scamming,” which saw the rise of stories about admirably scrappy frauds and grifters like fake socialite Anna Delvey and fake Royal Family experts, and it might have been tempting to throw McFarland into that ring as well. But there’s something about McFarland’s entitlement and corner-cutting that feels too pedestrian to celebrate. Men like him are born to be scammers, to use their gender, wealth, and the color of their skin to bypass life’s stumbling blocks and cruise by on mediocrity. Not to mention he didn’t just scam wealthy idiots, but people like MaryAnn Rolle, whose Great Exuma restaurant was forced to feed Fyre guests when they first arrived and tearfully tells the camera she spent $50,000 of her own savings to pay her own workers after being abandoned by Fyre. Repeatedly, after being arrested for fraud, McFarland confidently tells friends he is not going to jail.
Taking in the totality of Fyre’s planning, the “treasure hunts” for adults, the fact that the existence of supermodels alone could launch a thousand ticket purchases for an event designed to essentially just look good on Instagram, it’s hard to feel sorry for attendees and the festival’s top creators. Because, frankly, it’s thrilling to watch a group of NYC start-up bros plot the ultimate oasis for their brethren, and then witness it crumble because it can’t possibly exist in the way they want it to, no matter how much they try, no matter how often they’ve been told, their whole life, that they’ll be fine. It’ll all be fine.
Fyre premieres on Netflix this Friday, January 18.