GENERAL MAGIC, released by Gravitas Ventures, is an alternatingly intimate and sweeping doc about the eponymous company (GM) that became one of, if not Silicon Valley’s most spectacular startup flops, even after it was most spectacularly staffed (top techies fought for jobs), backed (a late 1990s Apple spin-off whose IPO raised almost $100 million), financed/partnered with (AT&T, Motorola, Sony, etc.), anticipated (Goldman Sachs did the IPO, an innovative one at the time because this offering had no product yet or investment stream beyond its original backers), and aggressively promoted, most significantly by GM co-founder and master marketer Marc Porat.
Porat, a silky and seductive salesman, first introduced the broad concept of his idea in 1989 at the Aspen Institute. Only a few years later in the early aughts, General Magic’s secret in-dev product hit stores, then caused the company (as in the best of “magic” shows) to quickly disappear. So what was the GM product that sunk it? Essentially, its Magic Link was a visionary pocket communicator — a kind of early Swiss Army knife born of a “computer in your pocket” idea— that brilliantly foreshadowed the iPhone, the iPod, iPad, Android, Apple Watch, email, Web-like access before the Web went public. Tragically, this analog device arrived years too early to the revolutionary digital party that would rock and the world. Fortunately, it wasn’t the concept that failed, nor the remarkable, obsessive workaholic staff that failed (many on the GM team became Valley tech greats, including iPod and iPhone co-inventor Tony Fadell, world class software engineer and member of the original Apple Macintosh team Andy Hertzfeld, top engineer and former Obama-appointed U.S. Government technology head Megan Smith, and Apple Watch lead engineer and current Apple Technology VP Kevin Lynch). What failed, beyond the awful timing, was a company that needed better organization and bosses who would have bucked the pressures to build and ship a buggy product with memory leaks that wasn’t ready or able to entice consumers.
Co-directors Sarah Kerruish and Matt Maude’s propulsive doc, blessed with their access to so many of the major figures in the GM drama and to so much archival material. This latter includes a treasure of ample footage from deep inside GM, from its messy beginnings to the messy end, that was intended to be promotional material.
Contemporary interviews with the mostly now-famous former staffers or major players like former Apple CEO John Sulley add so much because of their generosity (and, in some cases, bravery).
Input from top tech journalists like Kara Swisher and John Markoff help clarify the tech and business aspects that unfolded and even aspects of Silicon Valley history.
Dramatic elements of near-Shakespearean magnitude: Apple’s alleged betrayal with its 1993 introduction of the Newton pocket computer, the creation of the GM IPO even without a product to show, and the pressures that of defections by GM partners like AT&T Sony put on GM to rush their gizmo to market. And there’s the non-stop suspense continually swirling regarding how to not succeed in business when such gifted people gifted with so much financing were really, really trying to succeed.
Terrific docs, like their narrative fiction counterparts, need great casts and the players here are a lively and forthcoming bunch indeed (and they did have their fun!).
Beyond its informational and narrative value, a vigorously paced, magnificently produced doc that integrates some gorgeous aerial cinematography and a rich, lulling original score from Benji Merrison, all of which are usually so incongruous to such a dry, in-depth subject (business/computer history).