It was announced as “the cultural experience of the decade” and it was — just not in the way anyone anticipated.
As detailed by director Chris Smith in the compulsively watchable documentary “Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened,” what started out being touted as “Coachella in the Caribbean” ended it up as pure chaos that reminded participants of “a scene from a horror movie.”
The wreckage of 2017’s Fyre Festival was so compelling that this documentary, which opens simultaneously in theaters and on Netflix, is released in the same week as another doc on the exact same topic, which will play only on Hulu.
Documentary veteran Smith, whose earlier films include “American Job” and “Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond,” does an expert job here, talking to some 50 folks, including festival employees, consultants, would-be revelers and unwitting residents of the Bahamas who got caught in the event’s momentous undertow.
These interviews, along with vérité footage shot as the event was coming together and falling apart, are briskly edited by Jon Karmen and Dan Koehler into a fast-moving narrative that has the fascination of the bad traffic accident you just can’t turn away from.
Everyone spoken with tries to grapple with the question of why it all happened, why an event that seemed so hip, new and cutting edge down to the heady presence of influencers and supermodels crashed and burned so completely.
The answer seems to be a venerable one: As long as human beings are gullible, there will always be individuals able to take advantage of them. To put it in terms W.C. Fields could understand, there’s a sucker born every minute.
Though many of the people working to make Fyre Festival a reality did so in good faith, that could not necessarily be said about Billy McFarland, the festival’s co-founder (along with rapper Ja Rule), who is serving a six-year sentence in federal prison for fraud for his part in the fiasco.
Invariably referred to as “a visionary” when Fyre was being planned — a word that apparently meant that no one knew exactly where his money came from — McFarland was a twenty-something entrepreneur who seemed to have an eye for the next big thing.
McFarland’s first success was Magnises, an elite credit card for millennials. Next came Fyre, not the festival but a music business app that had the potential, boosters said, to become “the Uber of booking talent.”
Out of this business came the idea of establishing the ultimate in upscale music festivals, complete with top performers, gourmet food and glamorous accommodations.
If McFarland and his team knew anything, it was how to promote, and if any aspect of Fyre Festival was a complete success, it was the viral campaign that launched on Dec. 12, 2016.
Promotional footage shot with supermodels Bella Hadid and Emily Ratajkowski gave the event a seductive vibe, and after key influencers, including Kendall Jenner (who was reportedly paid $250,000), posted the festival’s signature burnt orange tile on their Instagram accounts, would-be hipsters fell in line.
But as far as the process of actually putting on a festival was concerned, the event’s wheels started falling off almost immediately.
For one thing, Fyre’s tyro talent bookers had only six to eight weeks to accomplish something that usually takes a year.
Even worse, the festival got kicked off its original Bahamas location (touted as drug kingpin Pablo Escobar’s former private retreat) and ended up on Great Exuma — on what was already the island’s busiest weekend of the year, when housing was beyond scarce.
The misfortunes kept coming as advertised luxury villas became FEMA disaster relief tents that were made uninhabitable by an unexpected rainstorm.
Things got even worse when actual festival-goers arrived and voiced their displeasure over social media. Organizers who hoped Fyre would overcome its difficulties the way Woodstock had decades earlier did not reckon with the power of angry millennials in the digital age.
Not everyone was sad when Fyre crashed and burned. “Every time a rich kid gets scammed,” read one Twitter post, “an angel gets its wings.”
But “Fyre” makes sure not to lose sight of the hard-working Bahamians who tried hard to make things work and paid a considerable financial price. “It hurt me; it really hurt me,” one woman says, close to tears. Those are the victims it is hardest to forget.
Running time: 1 hour, 37 minutes
Playing: Laemmle’s Royal, West Los Angeles, and on Netflix