tv review

Which Fyre Festival Documentary Is Right for You?

Billy McFarland on-camera in Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, and a scene from the Fyre Fest debacle in Netflix’s Fyre. Photo: Hulu and Netflix

If you had a pulse and an internet connection when the Fyre Festival turned from fantasy tropical concert into overpriced, disastrous failure last spring, then you already know the basics of the story told in two new documentaries about one of modern history’s greatest moments in schadenfreude.

Knowing the basics doesn’t detract from Fyre, the Netflix documentary that starts streaming Friday, or Fyre Fraud, which surprise dropped on Hulu earlier this week. Actually, understanding a little about what happened when Ja Rule and entrepreneur/con man Billy McFarland decided to launch a Bahamian Coachella will only make you more eager to dig deep into the crazy, amusing, and maddening accounts of what went wrong — spoiler: everything! — when these dudes decided to create a Fantasy Island for millennial Instagrammers with little time or proper preparation.

Still, there are notable differences and a bit of a rivalry between the two documentaries, especially given how Hulu preemptively debuted its film days ahead of Netflix’s long-planned premiere. As noted in this Ringer piece by Scott Tobias, Hulu’s Fyre Fraud, directed by Julia Willoughby Nason and Jenner Furst, also features an interview with McFarland that the filmmakers paid to acquire, along with some behind-the-scenes footage. (Chris Smith, the director of Netflix’s Fyre, told Tobias that McFarland claimed to be getting $250,000 for participating in Fyre Fraud, though Furst said they paid “less than that” for the interview.)

Meanwhile, Netflix’s Fyre lacks a sit-down with McFarland, but was co-executive produced by Elliot Tebele, founder of Jerry Media, the social-media agency that was a key promotion partner in Fyre Festival. Having watched both documentaries, I think it’s fair to say that Fyre Fraud is tougher on Jerry Media, also known as Fuck Jerry, and its efforts to promote an event that falsely advertised what it could deliver. But both movies are unflinching in their examination of what happened in the lead-up, execution (or lack of execution), and aftermath of Fyre Fest, and diverge just enough in terms of tone and information to make both worthwhile. The fact that there are two of them, raising the possibility that you might experience some level of regret depending on which one you opt to view, is apropos. It’s only right that a pair of documentaries focused on an event designed to exploit those who suffer from FOMO should elicit their own form of FOMO.

So, how can you decide which Fyre Festival documentary is most suited to your interests? I’ve broken down the two docs based on eight different factors that should help you determine which one to watch. (Or, at least, which one to watch first.) We at Vulture won’t even charge you a quarter-million dollars for the exclusive privilege of reading this review.

If you’re short on time …

By coincidence, presumably, these streaming movies are almost exactly the same length. The Netflix doc lasts an hour and 37 minutes, while the Hulu one runs for an hour and 35. In other words, both are relatively concise, which is a good thing if you plan to do a double feature.

Winner: Tie

If you need a Fyre Fest primer …

There is definitely storytelling overlap in these documentaries, which both cover the mix of hype and lack of infrastructure that lead up to the last weekend in April 2017, when Fyre Festival-goers arrived on Great Exuma Island to discover tents, mattresses sitting on the side of the road, and slapdash sandwiches instead of the glamp-y villas and gourmet meals they were promised. Fyre Fraud lays out more information about McFarland’s background and his pre-Fyre endeavors, including a failed, exclusive credit-card company that targeted millennials and should have served as a red flag that Fyre, an app that basically functioned as an Uber for talent booking, and its related fest might not come together as planned.

Fyre, on the other hand, drills down in a more linear fashion into the way the festival evolved from an insanely expensive concept, to an infamously enticing promo video featuring Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski, to a sold-out event that was definitely not coming together, and, ultimately, to a botched endeavor that sucked cash out of people’s wallets and forced attendees to fly away from the “exclusive” island that was supposed to supply them with the experience of a lifetime. Fyre also gets more granular as it recounts the festival’s eye-popping budget ($38 million on building stages, $3.5 million to pay performers) and shoddy logistics, like how the event ended up on a gravelly patch of Great Exuma, rather than Norman’s Cay, an island famous for its connections to drug lord Pablo Escobar, because McFarland and his colleagues were kicked off the latter location.

Winner: Netflix’s Fyre

If you’re looking for rich people schadenfreude …

Because Fyre Festival seemed like the ultimate vacation for people with too much disposable income, when the whole thing imploded, a lot of internet observers were amused, to say the least. As comedian Ron Funches says in a clip from Conan that’s included in Fyre, “If you paid thousands of dollars to go on a trip to see Blink 182, that’s on you. That is Darwinism at its finest.”

If you’re watching either of these documentaries to get another hit of enjoyment at the expense of conspicuous consumers’ misery, honestly, you can’t go wrong either way. Fyre Fraud spends a bit more time with social-media influencers who show up ready to par-tay in the Bahamas and are immediately appalled by the disaster-relief conditions that greet them. (“We just burnt all of our money,” laughs one attendee, ruefully, as a school bus pulls up to the site, where people who paid thousands of dollars realize they will be sleeping in flimsy FEMA tents.) But the Netflix film spends a fair amount of time on similar moments, even using the same school bus footage to capture the initial moments of Fyre horror.

Winner: Tie

If you want to blame the millennials …

Fyre Fraud much more overtly frames its narrative around generational issues, opening the film by observing how Fyre Fest “tapped into all the biggest millennial trends,” referring to, among other things, the desire to cultivate an image on social media and an eagerness to be in close proximity to influencers. The babies of the ’80s and ’90s may resent the stereotypes that rear their heads in the Hulu documentary, but it does raise provocative points about what makes portions of this demographic so susceptible to endorsements from Kendall Jenner and other, similar attempts at Insta-marketing. Those who like to laugh at rich white people and scoff at impressionable millennials will get the most bang for their buck on Hulu.

Ruling: Hulu’s Fyre Fraud

If you love a hateable villain …

Billy McFarland deserves more blame for Fyre Fest’s implosion than anyone, which is why he’s currently serving time in federal prison for committing fraud. But while he comes across as the chief bad guy in both documentaries, the reasons for his villainy diverge.

With its exclusive, paid-for interview, Fyre Fraud enables McFarland to incriminate himself by appearing on-camera and refusing to directly answer key questions the documentarians pose. “Has anyone ever called you a compulsive liar?” the filmmakers ask him. “I’ve been called a lot of things since the festival,” he initially says, then responds with, “You’re calling me all these crazy things, man. Show me one thing I said that’s not true. Show me one thing I said that’s not true today.” At that point, Fyre Fraud runs through a litany of falsehoods that he’s uttered over the course of the interview. On more than one occasion, the filmmakers show McFarland staring into space as he refuses, perhaps for legal reasons, to elaborate on subjects such as whether Ja Rule understood the degree to which the festival was not ready to proceed as planned.

And yet, while Netflix’s Fyre doesn’t have it’s own interview with McFarland, I came away from that film even more infuriated with him than I was during the Hulu documentary. Toward the end, it shows footage of McFarland on bail, yet living in a hotel penthouse, while a partner in his latest scam tries to persuade previous Fyre Festers to drop tons of cash on tickets to events like the Met Gala and the Grammys. This is an updated iteration of a grift McFarland ran at his failed credit-card company, not to mention a return to the kind of cons he used to entice people to come to Fyre Fest. Both documentaries explain that McFarland did this while he was waiting to be sentenced for the litany of lies he spun while planning Fyre Fest. But watching him actually doing it in the Netflix one — because, of course, he hired a videographer to film it all — makes it that much more outrageous.

Winner: Netflix’s Fyre

If you want to laugh …

If Fyre is closer in spirit to an Errol Morris documentary, then Fyre Fraud is more like a film by Michael Moore or Adam McKay. Its tone is lighter, especially in the beginning, drawing comparisons between McFarland’s scams and Dave Chappelle’s stand-up comedy, The Office, and Entertainment 720, the nonsensical, entertainment-focused boutique agency created by Tom Haverford and Jean-Ralphio Saperstein on Parks and Recreation. There are also several jokes at Ja Rule’s expense, and multiple uses of air-horn sound effects to convey ridiculousness. If you’re in the mood to laugh at the Fyre Festival debacle, report directly to Hulu.

Winner: Hulu’s Fyre Fraud

If you want to get angry …

I had already watched Fyre Fraud when I sat down to view Fyre, so I was pretty well-versed in the depths of McFarland’s callous fakery. But the Netflix documentary still unearthed details that made my jaw drop and my blood boil even higher than it did during the Hulu film.

Fyre director Chris Smith (American Movie and The Yes Men) has experience crafting stories about guys with big dreams and the capacity to pull off long cons, and he has a great instinct for finding the most damning anecdotes. A great example is his interview with Andy King, an event producer who is so loyal to McFarland that he admits he came very close to offering to give a Bahamian customs officer a blow job, at McFarland’s request, so the Fyre team wouldn’t have to pay customs fees for a bunch of 18-wheeler trucks filled with Evian water. The fact that (1) McFarland asked him to do this because he considered King their “gay leader,” and (2) King continued to work for the guy afterward is utterly astounding.

Smith also does a more affecting job of capturing the degree to which McFarland preyed on a wide swath of marks beyond those who got swindled into attending Fyre Fest. Maryann Rolle, the owner of the Exuma Point Restaurant, hosted festival attendees when they arrived on the island and spent $50,000 of her personal savings to pay local workers who never saw a dime from Fyre Fest. “They really, really, really, really hurt me,” she says in tears. “It really pains me when I have to talk about it, so I just wipe it away.”

The Netflix doc also captures the feelings of betrayal experienced by Fyre employees who were focused on developing the app and had nothing to do with the festival, but still wound up unemployed because of McFarland’s recklessness. Basically, Fyre is more thorough when it comes to capturing the extent and depth of the personal damage McFarland has done. Oh, and by the way, keep your eyes open during the footage of McFarland on bail, when he’s running a new con from his penthouse at the Tuscany Hotel. A friend named Angelo Roefaro is hanging out with McFarland and tells the videographer to “keep me out of your stuff.” Roefaro has reason to make that request: He’s the press secretary for Senator Chuck Schumer and probably knows that his association with McFarland won’t be a good look.

Winner: Netflix’s Fyre

If you’re looking for smart cultural critiques …

Both of the documentaries consider what the Fyre Fest debacle says about how Americans, particularly a subset of wealthy millennials, live according to aspirational values.

“It was like all beautiful beaches and sunsets,” festival consultant Marc Weinstein says in the Netflix film, describing his social-media feed while working on the event. “And I was going through the hardest experience of my life. Yet if you had seen it you would’ve been like, Wow, what a great life this guy leads. He’s living in the Bahamas and going to beaches all day. Fyre shows what happens when you take that to an extreme.”

Fyre Fraud goes a few steps further, not only placing the idea for the festival in a broader historical context but acknowledging the parallels between McFarland and other high-profile grifters, including one who had risen to the highest office in the land at the same time Fyre Festival was being planned. (“There is essentially a Fyre Festival going on in the West Wing,” one commenter says toward the end of the Hulu documentary.) Fyre Fraud makes a slightly more compelling case that the moment in which we’re currently living may eventually be known as the Great Duping of America. If it is, the Fyre Festival will certainly be a notable chapter in that period.

Winner: Hulu’s Fyre Fraud

If you just want the best Fyre Festival doc …

Winner: Hey, guess what? It’s a tie. Which means you’re the real winner, because you get to watch both of these very good documentaries.

Which Fyre Festival Documentary Is Right for You?