Who is Billy McFarland? Is he a genius? Is he an idiot? Is he a compulsive liar or a person who really believes he is telling the truth, right up until the moment all his best-laid plans fall apart? Is he the greatest scam artist of all time? How does he get people to trust him and his ideas, over and over again, even while he’s out on bail after being arrested for fraud? Mostly, how does he convince people to keep handing over so much money?
These are some of the questions that Fyre, the Netflix documentary, tries to answer.
For me, Fyre was a funny thing that happened on social media back in 2017 when a bunch of rich people landed on an island in the Bahamas for the greatest music festival ever, only to be greeted by leftover disaster relief tents and soaked mattresses.
After watching the Netflix documentary, I still feel that there are parts about the whole fiasco that are pretty funny, but for all the people who got tangled in McFarland’s crazy, crazy web, it was anything but funny: it was a tragedy.
The Fyre Festival was going to be the most exclusive, most luxurious music festival of all time. Dreamed up by McFarland and Ja Rule, it was meant to provide publicity for the Fyre app, which was designed to help people book famous people for gigs. For example, if you want Ariana Grande to perform at your 21st, the app would allow you to connect directly with her team to make enquiries, instead of going through endless middlemen, only to never connect with her at all. So this gives us an idea of what kind of people would be attending this festival: those who book Ariana Grande for birthday parties.
The advertising for the festival started way in advance of any actual festival planning. The organisers set up a truly beautiful promotional campaign, claiming they’d bought an island owned by Pablo Escobar to host the event, by filming models lounging around on a yacht in the Caribbean and posting to Instagram with #fyrefestival, and by paying a large number of social media influencers to punt the event on their own social media feeds. The festival sold out within two days.
The documentary starts here and then takes us through all that happened next, and you know, even though I knew how this story ended, I was on the edge of my seat for the whole film.
The film proceeds to interview various people involved in the fiasco – disgruntled attendees, Fyre employees, booked artists, unpaid contractors – and this is where its strength lies.
We see event planner Andy King almost in tears as he agonises over his culpability in the saga and the fact that he disguised himself in borrowed clothes to flee the island and a horde of angry, unpaid labourers.
We see music festival consultant Marc Weinstein gritting his teeth as he describes how he finally realised McFarland is in fact not a genius, but simply a liar.
We see McFarland’s Fyre employees talk about their devastation as months and months of honest, hard work amount to nothing but ridicule and unpaid wages.
We hear Keith van der Linde’s voice crack as he talks about being dropped from the team when he started to talk about logistical problems.
Most heartbreaking of all, we see Maryann Rolle and other Bahamians’ heartbreak as they recount the unpaid wages, the broken promises and the damaged relationships that Fyre and its organisers left in their wake.
The Netflix Fyre documentary will leave you with a lot to think about. Without a doubt, McFarland’s audacity is the centrepiece of the film. This, along with the simple question of how.
How did he get people to go along with his plan, for so long? How did he mislead investors so easily? How is it possible that he and his organisers could not accept, right until the very day it was meant to start, that the festival wouldn’t be happening?
But it will also have you thinking about the responsibilities of social media influencers, and the people they influence, who will drop thousands and thousands of dollars just because they saw Bella Hadid jump off a yacht and then post a hashtag to her account.
It will have you thinking about how quickly people will descend into anarchy when their comforts are taken from them (and perhaps they have been force-fed too much tequila). But it will also have you thinking about how wealth amplifies your voice.
When the story of Fyre broke, we were all laughing about rich kids having to eat soggy cheese on brown bread. This documentary allows us to see that the damage was so much more than that and that those who could least afford to lose, in fact, lost the most.