Fyre Festival Documentary Shows 'Perception And Reality' Of Infamous Concert Flop

Jan 13, 2019
Originally published on January 15, 2019 7:53 am

In April 2017, it was marketed as the party of a lifetime. The Fyre Music Festival was billed as a two-weekend, immersive experience in paradise where festival goers would enjoy top musical acts, party with supermodels and stay in lux accommodations on a private island in The Bahamas once owned by Pablo Escobar.

But attendees who paid thousands of dollars to fly to the Caribbean for Fyre Fest were greeted with complete chaos. When they arrived, they found a tent city and half-built structures. As more ticket holders arrived, they discovered there was not enough security, lights or food. Live tweets from ground zero of the pseudo-concert turned the fest and its co-founders, rapper Ja Rule and entrepreneur Billy McFarland, into the laughing stock of the Internet.

In the aftermath of the debacle, Fyre Fest was federally investigated and subject to a class action lawsuit. McFarland was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison for defrauding investors for millions of dollars.

Now, the new Netflix documentary Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened, out Jan. 18, goes behind the scenes with people directly involved to find out exactly what happened and how it all fell apart.

YouTube

Chris Smith, the documentary director, says that in terms of marketing, Fyre Media succeeded in "selling the dream" of a beach vacation combined with a music fest. But delivering on the fantasy was another story.

"I don't think they set out to try and scam people and just have them fly out and it be a disaster. I think the idea was to deliver something that lived up to the marketing. It was just the reality of that just proved to be incredibly impossible," Smith says.

The documentary interviews not only the organizers and people who know McFarland, but also native Bahamians who worked to set up the festival that were never paid.

A screenshot from FYRE: The Greatest Party That Never Happened.
Netflix

"I had seen the news story when it broke and just the implosion of the fest and how it was being reported and it always felt very one dimensional," Smith says. "To me, I was interested to see if there was a human story behind it."

Smith notes that he reached out to Billy McFarland to be interviewed for this documentary but that McFarland wanted to be paid in order to appear.

"It's a reflection of this idea of perception and reality," Smith says when explaining takeaways of the film. "Here you had something that was presented as sort of the ultimate festival experience and the reality of it was so different. It feels very much like a reflection of the times that we're in right now."

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

It was marketed as the party of a lifetime. The Fyre music festival - a two-weekend extravaganza in 2017. Hear top musical acts, party with supermodels, stay in luxe accommodations on a private island in the Bahamas once owned by Pablo Escobar. What could possibly go wrong? Well, instead, the people who paid more than $1,000 or more encountered complete chaos.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FYRE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: We see this sea of white, little tents.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: There was a disbelief on the bus. A lot of people thought that, oh, you know, maybe we're passing through this area. You know, our villas are just on the other side.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And it was the bus driver who said, oh, no. That's where you're staying. It was like, oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Look at the bed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The new Netflix documentary "Fyre" goes behind the scenes with people directly involved to find out what happened and how it all fell apart. And it is quite a tale. Director Chris Smith joins us now from NPR West.

Welcome.

CHRIS SMITH: Hey. Hello.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I don't know where to begin.

SMITH: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So much there - this documentary peels back the many layers of how an epic fail like this happened. So let's start at the beginning about how this was marketed. A bunch of A-lister models go to an island. And they sell something that doesn't exist.

SMITH: In that sense, it was a huge success - the marketing and the launch of the festival. I believe it was reported that it hit around 500 million people in 24 hours.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Wow.

SMITH: And, you know, that part they did very well. It was just the actual execution of the festival that they started to run into problems.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. So many people bought into the dream that that video showed - right? - these models frolicking, having a great time, this kind of fantasy.

SMITH: One of the things Billy McFarland, who was the co-founder of Fyre - one of the things that he was great at was selling the dream. And he did that very, very well.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You had a lot of video because these guys taped everything for promotional purposes. I want to quote founder Billy McFarland, who said in your documentary, "we're selling a pipe dream to your average loser, your average guy in middle America." Do you think that's the way they saw things?

SMITH: You know, it's hard to say. I think that they really did want to deliver.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FYRE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We're expecting millions of people to come visit our site to see the video, showing people that for three or four days, you can escape reality and come experience Pablo Escobar's island.

SMITH: I don't think that they set out to try to scam people and that, like - just have them fly to an island and have it be a disaster. I think the idea was to try to deliver something that lived up to the marketing. It was just the reality of that proved to be incredibly impossible.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: May I ask how you came to this? What interested you in the Fyre Festival - other than the fact that it just was a huge scandal. But why did you want to make this documentary?

SMITH: You know, I had seen the news story when it broke and just the implosion of the festival and how it was being reported. And it always felt very one-dimensional. And it was very - people focused on this idea of "Lord Of The Flies" with Instagram influencers and sort of rich kids that got stuck on an island. And to me, I was interested to see if there was a human story behind it. And hearing their stories, I realized that there was this incredibly smart, talented, thoughtful, compassionate group of people that all, you know, were trying to help make this dream a reality.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In the end, the people who bought tickets had a few bad days, right? But most of the Bahamians who worked on this for months - and the Bahamian government - never got paid. And this isn't a rich country.

SMITH: Yeah. To me, that was probably the biggest tragedy of it was the fallout that a few individuals are still dealing with. There was a woman that had a restaurant in the Bahamas that ended up putting a lot of her own money up.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FYRE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Personally, I don't even like to talk about the Fyre Festival. Just take it away. And just let me start a new beginning because they really, really, really hurt me.

SMITH: The perception of this was that it couldn't fail, you know, that there was an endless amount of money. This was well capitalized and all these, like, celebrities and all this talent was coming down. And the government was supporting it. So I think that there was this belief that, you know, everyone was just too busy to deal with the logistics, like - and they were truly overwhelmed. But, you know, the tragedy was that she ended up putting up a lot of her own money and sort of also had to pay everyone that she had employed because she was stuck there. And she had to look at these people every day.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Billy was recently sentenced to six years in prison for wire fraud charges related to the Fyre Festival. Did you try and reach out to him?

SMITH: We did. We had set up, I think, twice to film Billy. And then he would cancel at the last minute. And in the end, you know, it turned out that Billy wanted to get paid. We didn't feel comfortable that he would benefit when so many other people had suffered.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is a cautionary tale, right? What is the caution, though, for you? I mean, I've got my thoughts - a lot of them. But why do you think people found this story so compelling? And what should we take away?

SMITH: It's a reflection of this idea of just perception and reality. And I think, you know, we're looking at a world, you know, that's relatively new in terms of social media and the way that people depict their lives.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "FYRE")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We live in this influencer society. You know, everybody wants to have this online clout. You know, people want to have access. And they want exclusivity. Fyre was, basically, like Instagram come to life.

SMITH: And here you had something that was presented as the ultimate sort of festival experience. And the reality of it was so different. And I think that, you know, it feels like a - very much a reflection of the times that we're in right now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Chris Smith - his new documentary "Fyre" is out this week on Netflix. Thank you so much for coming on to the program.

SMITH: All right. Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.