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‘Fyre’ Review: Doc on Disastrous Music Fest Is One Three-Alarm Autopsy

Netflix’s look at how greed, corruption and lies led to an epic music-fest fail is an expert portrait of a great American scam artist

Fyre, Ja Rule and Billy McFarland

You probably remember the cheese sandwich. Maybe you had no idea who the young, bro-tastic hustler Billy McFarland was, or hadn’t heard of the Fyre Music Festival before — or god forbid you’d somehow miraculously missed the already deserved roasting that this misbegotten, mismanaged event had inspired on social media. But the picture of that pathetic meal almost assuredly crossed your path. It was two slices of white cheese, their ends curled, looking like they’d just been peeled straight out of the plastic Kraft packaging; they lay haphazardly over two pieces of wheat bread, as if they’d been slapped down in a rush. Condiments are A.W.O.L. The salad in the corner looks like a crime scene.

If this was something your kid was served as a school lunch, you’d want to sue the Department of Education. Death row inmates wouldn’t eat this. But as a tweet heard round the world attested, the “sandwich” — quotes are necessary here, lest we offend actual sandwiches — was the dinner offered to attendees of what was advertised as a luxurious weekend in the Bahamas, complete with four-star chefs and beachside cabanas. By the time that photo went viral, thousands of people who’d dropped tens of thousands of dollars to watch Blink-182 and cavort on the beach with supermodels were fighting over wet FEMA tents. They were promised Champagne wishes and caviar dreams. They were given cheese slices in Styrofoam containers.

By the time that infamous snapshot turns up in Fyre, Chris Smith’s wonderfully comprehensive documentary of how the fest turned into a shorthand for cultural-flashpoint shitshow, we’ve already had a ringside seat to this slow-motion car wreck for over an hour. And even if you know the basics of this stunning American failure story, it’s eye-opening — and nausea-inducing — to watch every misstep and blatant nuclear-grade fuck-up laid out before you in such plain terms. The subtitle is “The Party That Never Happened.” You leave this movie knowing exactly why it never should have happened in the first place.

Once upon a time, a man “bought” an island in the Bahamas. His name was Billy McFarland, a 25-year-old mover and shaker who’d started Magnises, a company designed to give millennials their own exclusive “black card” experience. Proclaiming that he had procured Fyre Cay, a private strip of land allegedly once owned by Pablo Escobar, McFarland and his partner Ja Rule began pitching the idea of an “immersive” music festival that was to take place there over two weekends. For an exorbitant price, folks who wanted a classier, more crème de la crème version of a spring break vacation could come down and briefly indulge in a utopia governed by McFarland’s personal creed, which he articulates in a late-night toast: “Living like movie stars, partying like rock stars and fucking like pornstars!”

That fratboy’s almanac gem is only one of several genuinely awe-inspiring quotables Fyre delivers to you through video-diary footage and post-event testimonials; we’d also include “an elephant of a clusterfuck” (a prophecy of how this whole shebang is likely to turn out, delivered by a Navy SEAL no less), and, from a pilot who taught himself how to fly, “Instead of models, we have to be thinking about toilets.” The winner, however, by a mile-long margin, belongs to Ja Rule, who tells someone running Fyre’s embryonic marketing campaign: “We’re spending a lot of money here … if the girls wanna go see the fucking pigs, we go see the fucking pigs!” The women are supermodels who McFarland & Co. have brought down to the island to film cryptic teasers for the upcoming festival, the better to sucker folks. The pigs are indigenous, free-roaming wild pigs. You can’t make this shit up.

Smith lets folks revel in the absurdity and gobsmacking hubris of it all at first, as well as the Harold-Hill-soaked-in-Cuervo charm of McFarland — a number of folks attest to the scam artist’s ability to convince you that he was some sort of event-booking magician. The director is no stranger to charismatic folks with cracked, upwardly mobile dreams, having made the triumph-of-the-underdog doc classic American Movie (1999). And the filmmaker knows how to combine wild clips with contextual interviews in the name of a cinematic autopsy, as proven by his equally invaluable Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond (2017), which charts Jim Carrey’s descent into Method-acting madness in order to play Andy Kaufman. McFarland never speaks to the camera here (more on that in a second) but there’s enough of him here in promo snippets, conference-call footage and behind-the-scenes videos that a portrait still emerges. He’s an unflappable dude-bro who knows you have to spend money to make money, or maybe convince others to spend their money so he can fuel his own high-life fantasy. He’s the human embodiment of entitlement, slathered in criminal intent. And when the shit finally goes down, he’s Homer Simpson slowly gliding backwards into a bush.

Indeed, after letting you chuckle in disbelief at the sheer you’ve-got-to-be-kidding–ness of it all, at the late-act marketing campaigns that are merely mood boards, at the way that social-media influencers bought into this so thoroughly and then broadcast the bullshit back out there, Fyre then gets to the actual festival. And that’s when the IRL Murphy’s Law horror movie begins. Overwhelmed locals at the eventual location in Great Exhuma, last-minute rainstorms, enraged visitors, looting ticket-holders, fleeing collaborators, unpaid workers, the world’s most famous epic-fail of a cheese sandwich. Chaos reigns, as does corruption. You start to laugh when you hear the movie’s unsung hero Andy King, a genial gray-haired man who’d worked with Billy for years, is told that he has to fellate the local customs official in order to get crates of bottled water released. Then you hear King say that he went back to his apartment to shower and gargle mouthwash so he could “take one for the team,” and you want to cry.

The triage scenes after this debacle aren’t less agonizing either, with Fyre Organization employees getting fired by group phone call, Bahamian hired hands having to deal with violent threats — and then intimations of a second McFarland scam happening to folks who’d simply signed up for fun, sun and the chance to see Major Lazer. “That’s not fraud,” Ja Rule says during an aftermath powwow over videochat and folks try to assess what went wrong besides, you know, everything. “That’s … false advertising.” (The man is apparently a legal expert in addition to being a Grade A quote machine.)

McFarland was eventually sentenced to six years in prison on various counts of, yes, fraud and, per Smith, asked to be paid for an interview for the movie. The director declined. The filmmakers behind Fyre Fraud, a Hulu-sponsored doc on the festival that just coincidentally happened to surprise-drop five days before this Netflix-produced project, did not and got the man to speak on the record. Both chronicles of how an Icarus with wings made of Bud Lime bottles, Axe body-spray cans and Instagram posts of burnt orange tiles was incinerated are worth checking out. See Fyre first. It’s the perfect melding of groundwork-laying, commentary, comedy, tragedy and longform cinejournalism. It’s a three-alarm indictment.

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