In spring 2017, the internet turned into a live version of that Michael Jackson popcorn-eating GIF as the disastrous Fyre Festival, promoted as a no-expense-spared island getaway for the young and beautiful, imploded in real time on social media.
Conceived by young “entrepreneur” Billy McFarland (who is currently serving a six-month prison sentence for fraud) and rapper Ja Rule, the two-weekend music festival failed spectacularly: The musical acts (including Blink 182 and Major Lazer) were no-shows; the “luxury villas” were disaster-relief tents with soggy mattresses; the “gourmet meals” were hastily-assembled cheese sandwiches; and the “private island” in the Bahamas (“once owned by Pablo Escobar”) turned out to be a barren stretch of land on the not-at-all-private island of Great Exuma. The high-rolling millennials and Instagram influencers who flew in for the festival were thrust into a dystopian nightmare, forced to compete for resources and eventually locked in a tiny airport for hours, unable to fly home.
Naturally, the world has been waiting for a documentary that tells the whole story. And this month, we get two. Hulu’s Fyre Fraud is streaming now, and Netflix’s Fyre (which was actually announced first) drops on Friday. So what’s the difference between these similarly-named Fyre Festival documentaries? And which one should you watch?
Trailer for Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, directed by Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason:
Trailer for Netflix’s Fyre, directed by Chris Smith:
Here’s the good news: You can’t go wrong. Both feature-length films are well-made and compulsively watchable. Each contains its own jaw-dropping revelations. You may even want to view them back-to-back as a sort of make-your-own-docuseries.
That said, the filmmakers’ approaches to the material are quite different. Netflix’s Fyre is directed by Smith, best known for his 1999 cult-favorite documentary American Movie. That film is about two complete amateurs trying to make an ambitious horror film in Milwaukee, and their impossible dream is so endearing that the audience ends up rooting for them. In a sense, Fyre explores the dark side of that same idea: What if your impossible dream really is impossible and you end up hurting and betraying all the people who try to make it a reality?
Smith’s film unfolds like Titanic. It begins with the festival’s enticing promo reel of supermodels on an island, followed by extensive footage and interviews with festival organizers, planners and employees, all documenting the plunge into total catastrophe. It’s a nail-biting narrative, even knowing how it ends. But the tragedy, for Smith, isn’t the festival itself; it’s the people who suffered in its wake, from the unpaid manual laborers in the Bahamas to the friends McFarland shamelessly duped. And it’s the fact that social media, with its deceptive sheen of perfection, so easily convinced the world that the Fyre Festival was real — with no actual evidence that it was anything but a mirage.
If the Netflix film is a tight drama, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud opts for a bigger picture, looking at the festival through the lens of millennial life and Trump-era morality. Using interviews, animation and rapid-fire video clips (ranging from 9/11 footage to Keeping Up With the Kardashians clips), directors Furst and Nason tell the insane story of the festival while explaining how the particular cultural moment made us all perfect marks for a con man like McFarland.
Fyre Fraud does score one major coup over Fyre: an interview with McFarland, conducted while he was on bail. That interview has actually become a source of controversy because the Fyre Fraud filmmakers paid McFarland a large sum, which Smith refused to do. Furst and Nason have countered that Fyre is unethical in its own way, because Smith produced it in partnership with two marketing agencies that worked on the festival.
Our two cents: The McFarland interview in Fyre Fraud isn’t that illuminating, and the marketing people interviewed in Fyre aren’t exactly let off the hook. Purely on the merits of filmmaking, we prefer Fyre, which ingeniously lures the audience into the fantasy before implicating us in the disaster. But watching the films side-by-side allows viewers to see how the blame for the Fyre Festival can easily be cut two different ways. There’s certainly enough of it to go around.
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