Voice-over narration in film is often accused of being lazy or a crutch. Cinema is, after all, about visual storytelling. A voice-over can undermine the nature of the art form when misused. However, Martin Scorsese’s filmography, namely Goodfellas, Casino, The Wolf Of Wall Street, and Taxi Driver serve as excellent reminders for how great a voice-over can be when done right.
Martin Scorsese’s voice-overs always seem to work so well because he uses them with a distinct purpose. The voice-overs in his films compliment good visual storytelling, rather than compensating for a lack thereof. For example, films like Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street require a voice-over. They are adaptations of novels, so voice-over allows Scorsese the opportunity to get all the necessary information into the film.
From the beginning of both of these films, Scorsese uses voice-over to establish our relationship with the protagonist. He also uses the technique to give quick background information and explainers in a clever way. In Goodfellas Henry Hill’s (Ray Liotta) voice-over describes the ins and outs of the mob in New York and his rise and fall within their ranks. In The Wolf of Wall Street Jordan Belfort’s voice-over (via Leonardo DiCaprio) describes his own rise and fall as a stockbroker in New York in the ’90s.
There are many examples in both these films of voice-over and visuals coming together flawlessly. For example, in The Wolf Of Wall Street, there is a scene where Jordan is explaining what ludes are. A visual example – Donnie (Jonah Hill) lunging at the pool table – then interrupts the voice-over in this scene. This is a great showcase of the film’s playful brand of voice-over. Jordan literally says, “Uh, wait, wait, wait,” before the film momentarily turns our focus to the drugged-out Donnie. Scorsese creates a perfect balance.
Scorsese’s use of voice-over also takes narrative storytelling to the next level. He very interestingly uses voice-over for the element of surprise in both Goodfellas and Casino. The deaths of Joe Pesci’s characters in these films are good examples. Both films employ what seems to be an omniscient narrator – or narrators, plural, in Casino’s case – from the get-go.
In Goodfellas, in the scenes leading up to Tommy’s (Pesci) death, the characters believe he is going to be “made” by the mob. Henry’s narration explains at length that this means becoming a full member of the mafia. He goes on about how excited they all are for this. In other words, his narration leads the viewer to believe that Tommy’s induction is definitely going to happen. Henry’s voice-over feels very nostalgic for the whole film. This makes us subconsciously assume we’re always receiving all the necessary information. If anything out of the ordinary is to come, we believe we’ll get a warning. So, when the scene arrives and Tommy instead receives a bullet in the back of the head, it’s pretty shocking.
So next time you feel like you’ve had enough of poorly done voice-overs in film, watch a Scorsese movie to remember how exhilarating they can be. The opening scene of Goodfellas – Henry’s narration of the line “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster,” followed by the first notes of Tony Bennett’s “Rags to Riches” – still delivers a cinematic adrenaline rush like no other.
Watch this video essay by the Truthtellers for an in-depth look at the voice-overs in the four aforementioned Scorsese films: