Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"If you thought you knew every bit of scandal associated with the festival from reading articles about it or watching the news, prepare to be surprised."

"They paid $12,000 for a music festival on a private island. They got complete chaos," reported the Miami Herald. "Luxury Event in The Bahamas Turns Into Nightmare," said Caribbean 360, while Cosmopolitan ran a feature headlined "Everything That Went Hilariously Disastrously Wrong at Fyre Festival." Few festivals in history have garnered as much publicity, yet the disaster that was Fyre Festival disproved once and for all the contention that all publicity is good publicity.

If you're not in the market for luxury island breaks with supermodels and A-list musicians, the chances are that you didn't pay a whole lot of attention when Fyre was first marketed online, even if you thought it looked cool. Far more compelling, to most internet users, was the notion of hundreds of spoiled rich people trapped on an island with barely any food or sanitation as the whole thing descended into chaos, and it's probable that any people will seek out Netflix's new documentary about it purely as comedic entertainment. To its credit, though, this film - which could easily have coasted on that promise - goes much further, not only providing fresh insights into the disaster that inspired so much schadenfreude but also looking at the tragedies hidden behind the glamour - the destruction caused in the lives of ordinary people who gave their all to make it happen, islanders who never received their pay, saw their tourist industry destroyed and were left to clean up the mess, and more.

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This film may make you stop and think before you share inspirational memes that tell people they can achieve anything. If political developments in recent years have not been sufficient to demonstrate the falsity of that claim, the story of Fyre acts as a reminder that it's a con man's favourite line. This doesn't seem to have started out as a con, however - Chris Smith's film implies that the group who set out to create the festival genuinely - albeit naively - believed in their own abilities, based on the brief success they'd had running a celebrity event agency. It was when things started to go wrong - because none of them actually had the relevant expertise, skills or connections, nor the wit to invest in people who did - that that self-belief evolved into a form of psychopathy, a collective inability to acknowledge failure. The documentary lays the blame for much of this at the feet of Billy McFarland, who kept convincing other members of the team that they had gone too far to turn back and that they could still salvage everything if they simply kept the faith.

Is this fair? McFarland has a fraud conviction so makes an easy scapegoat, which should give viewers pause. That said, the film makes a pretty good case, with some of McFarland's activities after the festival clinching its arguments. Other members of the team acknowledge their own failings and express varying degrees of contrition; McFarland himself is visible only in archive footage, and there are good reasons for that. Whilst a film about business dealings and fraud might sound rather dry, this is anything but. Some of the tasks assigned to other team members as the situation grew more desperate will shock even the most cynical of viewers. If you thought you knew every bit of scandal associated with the festival from reading articles about it or watching the news, prepare to be surprised. Stranding hopelessly unprepared tourists and ruining local businesses is only half of it.

Perhaps most courageously, Smith gives the frequently vilified festival attendees the chance to speak, letting them be seen as human beings rather than as victims who, to some extent, deserved what they got. This part of the story offers its own fascinating psychological insights. The level of horror expressed at the poor quality of the tents (previously used in disaster relief efforts) may seem unsympathetic but is an important inclusion because it illustrates how sheltered some of the attendees were, how completely unprepared for the astonishingly rapid descent into savagery that followed as people fought and trampled each other to secure food and shelter. Even the bleakest works of JG Ballard, whose writing this scenario closely resembles, never imagined civilsation proving quite this fragile.

Thoroughly researched and full of fascinating details, this documentary boasts every quality that the Fyre festival lacked. Many viewers will find it a much more enriching way to spend a couple of hours than lying on an island in the sun, regardless of the company.

Reviewed on: 14 Jan 2019
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A behind the scenes look at the infamous unravelling of the Fyre music festival.

Director: Chris Smith

Writer: Chris Smith

Starring: Seth Crossno, Brett Kincaid, Andy King, Billy McFarland, Mary Ann Rolle, Ja Rule, Marc Weinstein

Year: 2019

Runtime: 98 minutes

Country: US


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