It seems in retrospect unavoidable that the week of release for a highly-anticipated documentary about a scammer began with an attention-grabbing stunt.
On Monday, in advance of the planned Friday drop of Netflix’s “Fyre,” Hulu executed a surprise release of its own “Fyre Fraud”; both films assay the failed 2017 gathering Fyre Festival, a would-be Woodstock in the Bahamas that fell apart just as the “influencers” who’d paid heavily to be there arrived. Both films provide compelling portraits of Billy McFarland, the infamous Fyre impresario whose ability to come up with schemes to separate his peers from their money outstripped his morality or event-planning acumen; both, indeed, run through very similar timelines (McFarland’s rise, a granular look at the disaster of Fyre, and the aftermath, including McFarland’s arrest and conviction for wire fraud), and use some of the same on-camera sources.
Hulu’s release Monday ate Netflix’s lunch, to at least some degree; it provided a feature-length analog to a heavily marketed Netflix product four days before the latter would be available. But “Fyre Fraud”-vs.-“Fyre” wasn’t just an “Armageddon”-vs.-“Deep Impact” case of two films about remarkably similar subject matter coming in quick succession. Hulu’s “Fyre Fraud” makes a case, in its final moments, that Netflix’s “Fyre” is compromised by its entanglement with the social media agency Jerry Inc. (which, under its former name, FuckJerry, was involved in marketing Fyre Festival, and which helped produce the Netflix documentary).
This, as well as the “Fyre” team’s protestations that “Fyre Fraud,” whose production paid McFarland for licensed footage and an interview, is as or more ethically dubious, would seem to matter less for the consumer than the question of which, when both are finally available, is worth watching, but for the fact that such questions cut to the heart of what we’re able to see. “Fyre Fraud” paints a picture of an entire ecosystem of scamming, a richer and more rewarding portrait. (It’s worth noting that Netflix has stated that “Fyre,” despite Jerry’s involvement, enjoyed complete editorial independence.) “Fyre” drills down on a story of McFarland as a unitary figure of special malice, which feels both less interesting and less true. After all, a fiasco on par with Fyre requires more than one bad actor, and a media story big enough to necessitate two documentary features requires resonances that go beyond one scammer’s mind.
Credit “Fyre Fraud” with a more expansive vision, in all senses, of the whole incident. The access to a post-arrest McFarland—existing in a moral gray zone though it may—grants a fuller vision of exactly who we’re dealing with, a person who weighs his words legalistically even as he’s spitting them out with machine-gun speed. The weight of his belief that he cannot be morally wrong so long as he cannot be caught in a lie remains, even after we know not to trust him. The Hulu documentary, too, provides the voice of former Jerry employee Oren Aks, who provides meaningful context on the manner in which Jerry deleted negative comments on Fyre’s social media channels in order to prevent the truth (that the festival was fraudulent) from reaching the public.
What works most piquantly about “Fyre Fraud,” though, are commentaries throughout about the general state of influencer culture. Fyre could not have happened had it not been both for the specific promotional efforts of various “influencers”—social-media famous models and personalities—as well as a more general cultural atmosphere in which flaunting one’s aggressive pursuit of status and otherwise idle lifestyle is the path to micro-fame. We’re walked through this culture in tight, specific terms, as with the revelation that Kendall Jenner, who promoted Fyre on her Instagram, earns (or, more aptly, nets) $250,000 per sponsored post. While it leans a little too heavily on montages of various pop-culture moments that sort of explain Fyre, its vision of an expansive web of corruption defining the lives of those who live online is compelling and crystalline.
“Fyre” doesn’t have that level of specific insight, and its portrait of McFarland is nourished not by an interview but by striking bits of footage its producers and director obtained. The film comes most fully alive in the wake of Fyre, when we see, first, a staff meeting of McFarland’s team in which the now-failed entrepreneur sits silently as an associate says Fyre’s lies about what it would provide were “not fraud. That is, uh, I would call that false advertising.” (That the distinction is not in fact a difference is a moment that lodges in the mind even more than some of McFarland’s most baroque misdeeds.) Later, McFarland is shown excitedly directing a surrogate in a second scam, whereby fake tickets to events like the Met Gala are sold over the telephone. As he directs this obviously false scheme (for one thing, the Met Gala is invitation-only) he seems to be not just robotically spitting out data and half-baked ideas, as he has been throughout the two documentaries, but, finally, alive. Elsewhere, we endure repeated accusations about McFarland (yes, it’s true that he’s a liar, but simply pathologizing him is perhaps less interesting than asking why), culminating in a mid-movie reveal that he’d asked a gay employee to perform a sex act on a Bahamian customs employee to avoid paying a tariff. That the employee, McFarland’s senior and experienced in his field, says he was prepared to do so despite himself is the first time the film gets at McFarland’s place within a world of hustlers and desperate people, and at the harm he was willing to do.
Together, the two films—”Fyre Fraud,” which makes a case for McFarland as a symptom of his time, and “Fyre,” which depicts him as a figure outside it—add up to a cohesive picture. Overall, “Fyre Fraud” is more effective at conveying the swirl of toxic ego within which McFarland reigned, and in which so many run-of-the-mill social media users are implicated. But no single moment in it is as powerful as a scene towards the very end of “Fyre” in which a Bahamian woman who had signed on as a Fyre vendor with employees under her she was compelled to pay saw herself cleaned out without recompense. “They just wipe it out and never look back,” she says tearfully. There’s a cost to all of this beyond just changing the ways the social-media-savvy live now, after all. And while “Fyre Fraud” gets at the very heart of what made McFarland’s fraud so effective as a social-media ploy, “Fyre,” in the end, understands that the McFarlands of the world, changing the culture online but also wreaking havoc in the very real world, are bound to affect us all.
“Fyre Fraud,” Hulu. Directors: Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason. Executive Producers: Jenner Furst, Julia Willoughby Nason, and Michael Gasparro.
“Fyre,” Netflix. Director: Chris Smith. Executive Producers: Brett Kincaid, Max Pollack, Matthew Rowean, Gabrielle Bluestone, James Ohliger, Elliot Tebele.