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Netflix's Fyre Is a Masterfully Told Saga of an Epic Sh--show

It's a gripping account of how one man used celebrity, Instagram and Gen-Y tastes to swindle millions

Malcolm Venable

Just when you think Fyre, the documentary about the 2017 music festival that cheated young people out of their money and left them stranded in Miami, couldn't get any more unbelievable, it gets more unbelievable.

By this point in Chris Smith's meticulously told film, which comes to Netflix on Friday, Jan. 18, we know Fyre Festival is doomed on multiple fronts -- that it's logistically and physically impossible to carry out -- but must continue to satisfy legal obligations. Viewers know Fyre Festival's "entrepreneur" Billy McFarland had been lying to the public, defrauding investors and threatening whistleblowers to make it successful. People who followed this story already knew that when concertgoers got to the Bahamas they found no concert nor the luxury cabanas and gourmet meals they'd been promised, but instead were face-to-face with flimsy FEMA tents and cheese sandwiches.

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Every minute of Fyre that ticks by brings some new, totally stupefying revelation about McFarland's hubris and deception -- behavior so outrageous that you think no subsequent moment can top the previous one, until, that is, one of the event planners, a gay man with decades of professional experience, calmly explains that McFarland asked him to give a Bahamian official a blowjob to get bottled water Fyre could no longer afford out of customs. I won't deny you the joy of hearing how that one ends.

Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, Fyre

Ja Rule and Billy McFarland, Fyre


Fyre, as one might expect from a story about Instagram lust, the power of celebrity, viral phenomena and rich-kid schadenfreude, functions as a modern-day parable about the pitfalls of contemporary youth culture. I cannot say anything poetic or insightful about the thirst for demonstrable experience and lifestyle one-upmanship that made Fyre Festival desirable in the first place that isn't cloying or you don't already know; Fyre doesn't try to either. Fyre eschews making a grand, sign-of-the-times statement in favor of a clean, simply told story about Billy McFarland's greed and need for approval, stuffed with dozens of interviews, copious first-hand footage and smooth, seductive storytelling.

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Beautifully shot and edited, Fyre is little more than a standard, straightforward documentary about McFarland's misguided attempt to build a luxury music festival amid the pristine beaches and aqua waters of the Caribbean. It's pretty much sit-down interviews and footage captured by the videographers McFarland hired, but assembled with clarity, purpose and suspense. Obviously, the inevitable implosion is never far from viewers' minds, but as red flags turn into something the size of a Christo installation -- nobody running this had any experience; they were trying to execute an event that took 12 months of planning in just eight weeks -- Fyre explores the provocative question that hadn't been addressed publicly until now: was Billy McFarland just an in-over-his-head start-up douche or an outright crook? The people who trusted him answer that question tenfold, and as the date of the festival looms, McFarland's delusion and dishonesty intensifies.




The entire Internet saw how Fyre Festival ticket holders got humiliated, but Fyre finds a grounded, emotional center to this catastrophe by introducing viewers to the people McFarland hurt even more directly, from employees in New York to the Bahamian laborers who formed a mob to find him after he'd vanished off the island without paying them. There is heartbreaking footage of a local woman who lost her life savings. Another person on the team recounts being so afraid for his safety he smuggled himself under blankets in a car and escaped.

Fyre may be a plainly told tale about how one guy conned a whole generation, but its immersive reporting and restraint make it a masterful meditation on 21st century culture and fame, as well as the societal norms that allow young white men like McFarland to bluff, bluster, bullsh-t and bargain their way to the top without resistance or concern for who might be collateral damage. It's a defining true crime story for the Internet age.

Fyre premieres Jan. 18 on Netflix.