With the teachers strike and the government shutdown somewhat settled for now, another great debate seems to be stirring in the zeitgeist — which documentary about the ill-fated Fyre Festival is better, Netflix's or Hulu's? Yes, like Ringling Bros. vs. Barnum & Bailey, both streaming services have released competing documentaries about the would-be 2017 luxury music event.
There has been much snark written about Fyre, of course. How could there not be? A cellphone-age Woodstock on a beautiful island, promising first-class accommodations, fancy food, JetSkis and swimming with wild pigs and models, and a stellar bill that included Blink-182, Major Lazer and more. Of course, it never happened and the ticket holders who showed up were stuck in FEMA tents eating cold cheese sandwiches on white bread. It all devolved into Lord of the Flies–like chaos, too, with hundreds of influencers freaking out over the missed opportunities for killer selfies.
Both Netflix’s Fyre: The Greatest Party That Never Happened and Hulu's Fyre Fraud concentrate on the bogusness of ”visionary” Billy McFarland, who is now in prison serving a six-year sentence. While both films are incredibly entertaining, each has some controversy about how it ended up reaching the small screen. In the end, it is not apples and oranges, more like Red Delicious or Granny Smith — they’re the same fruit but they do taste different.
Netflix’s film has the more respected director behind it, Chris Smith, whose impressive résumé includes American Movie, The Yes Men, Collapse and Netflix’s outstanding Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond. Smith's version of the story feels more detailed and much more in depth about the on-site buildup to the event. It pays greater attention to the people who were hurt (not just white-collar promoters and organizers but local builders, drivers and service workers). It also shows more behind-the-scenes footage, and this is where its ethics have been challenged since Fuck Jerry (aka Jerry Media, the company contracted to handle Fyre’s social media) is one of the producers of the movie. Some have pointed out that the film lets many of the people who worked for or with Fyre clear their names as on-camera talking heads, laying the blame at the feet of McFarland and his sidekick, rapper (and one-time Steven Seagal co-star) Ja Rule.
Meanwhile, Hulu managed to get its doc out a few days earlier. Though perhaps more artfully crafted, it does feel as if it contains less overall information (it’s only a minute shorter in length). While the Netflix doc goes into more detail on the planning of the event and on McFarland’s previous ventures that also played on the millennial generation’s need to be part of the “cool” scene, Fyre Fraud better explains the Wall Street part of the financial sham. And Hulu's big ace-up-its-sleeve is that it actually stars the conman himself. The visibly uncomfortable McFarland sat down for an interview, portions of which are peppered throughout. Though he doesn’t really offer any extra insight or regret, it is satisfying when the film calls out his on-camera lies. The controversy here is that he was paid for the hacky appearance, under the guise of licensing footage, a not uncommon practice but still icky considering his arrogant crimes.
Each film has its plusses and minuses. The Netflix doc has more on the making of the viral ad for the festival that got the ball rolling and turned the thing into an Instagram phenomenon, with celebs like Kendall Jenner helping to perpetuate the event's cachet online for pay. Hulu counters with sad footage of McFarland’s current Russian-y, model-y girlfriend interviewed defending him. On Netflix, McFarland comes off as The Wolf of Wall Street, while Hulu presents him like American Psycho, maybe less money-grubbing but still a weasel and shallow sociopath. Both films carefully lay out the financial fraud that was perpetrated on investors and the public. And rightfully, both hold the millennial generation — whose members have turned stars like Jenner into billion-dollar commodities — partly to blame for being the perfect marks for hustlers who pray on self-indulgence. Both films do a great job of making fun of Ja Rule, Netflix with its backstage footage of Ja, stating in his own words, “That’s not fraud, just false advertising,” while Hulu settles for a classic Dave Chappelle clip.
In the end, both films at around 90 minutes feel a little short and could be longer (it will all eventually make for a perfect FX Channel American Crime Story miniseries). Since they do offer different talking heads and some different information, they clearly work best as complements to each other, the perfect true crime/douchebag double feature.
So the real question is which to see first? Watch the Netflix film first for its extensive overview, and Hulu's second for more in-depth look into the mind of a money- and fame-obsessed villain, a type that's all too familiar these days. Fyre Fraud gets it right when someone points out: “It’s a great time to be a con man in America.”