The skilled use of voice-over narration can make a good film, a great one. Here we take a look at five instances when voice-over complemented a film’s ability to appeal to its audience in an immersive way.
Good voice-over narration can not be underestimated. When done well – in films such as American Psycho, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fight Club, Raising Arizona, Memento, Apocalypse Now and many others as well as the top five we list below, voice-over narration complements drama, character, ambience and mood, while allowing the director to immerse his/her audience in the story in a variety of ways (from detached objectivity in The Royal Tenenbaums to emotive subjectivity in Goodfellas).
Henry Hill – Goodfellas
“As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” says Henry Hill in Martin Scorsese’s epic mafia movie. Ray Liotta’s narration is part of the film’s charm, his likeable nostalgia working harmoniously with the shoulders-back lifestyle of the Italian-American gangster. Unlike the objectivity of the voice-over in The Royal Tenenbaums, Hill’s experiences are subjective and biased. What that does is bring the audience along for *his* journey; it makes us one of them for a couple of hours.
Anonymous Stranger – The Big Lebowski
The Big Lebowski has become something of a cult phenomenon and still arguably the Coen brothers’ finest film (it’s definitely their funniest). The anonymous stranger who narrates the film is a big part of its success with his oddball observations that work perfectly with the film’s offbeat sense of humour. “Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes the bar, well, it eats you,” the narrator says at one point. Undoubtedly, it’s one of Jeff Bridges’ best films.
Joe Gillis – Sunset Boulevard
There is a skill to doing film narration well. Any voice-over company worth hiring will have heard legendary Hollywood filmmaker Billy Wilder’s advice: “The thing about voice-overs – you have to be very careful there that you don’t show what they’re already seeing. Add to what they’re seeing.” What’s great about Sunset Boulevard, one of Wilder’s many classics, is how the narration comes from a dead man’s recollection. Wilder hits his audience from minute-one with the image of Joe Gillis – our narrator – lying dead in a pool. “Before you hear it all distorted and blown out of proportion,” he says, “before those Hollywood columnists get their hands on it, maybe you’d like to hear the facts, the whole truth.” A poignancy to Gillis’ voice-over enlivens the drama as we wonder what brought his life to an end and how the events lead up to the opening shot depicting his lifeless body.
Renton – Trainspotting
Renton’s (Ewan McGregor) matter-of-fact voice-over in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting brings the audience into this life of drugs and mixture of hedonism and deep sadness. “Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a f****** big television,” he tells us. Employed in many ways to preserve writer Irvine Welsh’s colloquialisms and dialect, Renton’s personal recollections and observations bring some order to the fragmented nature of the plot while further immersing us in his story.
The Narrator – The Royal Tenenbaums
With distinct objectivity, Alec Baldwin’s narration in The Grand Budapest Hotel director Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums is striking because it lacks emotion, making him a narrator who’s personally detached from the characters he talks about and, as a result, boasts testimony that comes loaded with trust. It works well with the episodic, chapter-based comedy-drama we see, making it one of those voice-over narrations that truly complements the film.