Woodstock tickets go on sale soon. That's Woodstock 50, the anniversary festival scheduled for August and currently being planned by Michael Lang, an organizer of the original. In a recent Rolling Stone interview, Lang wouldn't reveal the lineup but did announce he'll be bringing NGOs to educate attendees about getting involved with political causes. "Woodstock," he said, "... was really about social change and activism."
Which contrasts deliciously with the Fyre Festival, which was really about social media and atavism. Dueling documentaries about the infamous 2017 fiasco began streaming last week, one on Hulu and the other on Netflix. Both have their merits, but I recommend the latter.
Fyre is the latest from director Chris Smith (Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond). Taglined "The Greatest Party That Never Happened," the film offers a jaw-dropping look behind the scenes at the slow-motion train wreck that was the Fyre Festival. Using a mix of interviews, archival footage and audio recordings, it shows how the motley, unqualified crew responsible for the event came together and the spectacular — not to mention criminal — fashion in which it all fell apart.
Only in America and only in this dumbed-down, celebrity-obsessed age could someone like Billy McFarland wreak such havoc. Smith's doc recounts how the 25-year-old partnered with rapper, reality star and convicted tax evader Ja Rule to launch Fyre Media, a talent-booking app. Want Blink-182 to play your party? With Fyre, they'd be a click away. A team of tech-savvy twentysomethings was hired. Venture capital poured in. It might well have worked.
But McFarland got greedy. Or became delusional. Probably both. Convinced the best way to promote the platform was to throw a lavish party for industry heavyweights, he promptly booked an island in the Bahamas once owned by drug lord Pablo Escobar. Then he decided a better idea was a high-end festival of music, gourmet food and oceanfront luxury, kind of a Coachella for millennial elites.
One of Smith's strengths as a filmmaker is his sixth sense for the perfect source. He interviews experienced festival planners who recall being amused by McFarland's hubris when he announced the event's dates. It was absurd, they say, to pretend a barren stretch of gravel and sand with minimal infrastructure and zero internet could be transformed into a world-class site in less than three months. Nobody believed it could happen. Except (possibly) Fyre's founders.
The filmmaker also accessed footage of staff meetings and recordings of calls made by McFarland before and after the doomed weekend. They offer a fascinating window into his reality-resistant mind-set. Even as time ran out, celebrity influencers were paid to plug the festival; Kendall Jenner got $250,000 for a single Instagram post. Last-minute millions were deceptively solicited from investors, and Facebook was flooded with promos showing supermodels frolicking on the beach and lounging on yachts.
The result? Young people who paid $100,000 a ticket for promises of luxury cabanas arrived to find Federal Emergency Management Agency hurricane tents with rain-soaked mattresses. Watching the events unfold, one feels a mixture of things. Certainly, a sense that it may have served the festivalgoers right for taking cues from pseudo-celebrities and believing everything they saw online factors into a viewer's reaction (at least this viewer's). Ultimately, though, outrage and incredulity are the predominant responses. How could a scam on this scale have unfolded in plain sight?
Smith's film doesn't have all the answers. Of the two docs, however, it does have the more perceptive, levelheaded and compelling approach to the question.