Last week, I happened upon the video “5 Guys in a Limo,” something I hadn’t seen in years. It’s a terrific short starring five superstars of an unsung art form – the movie trailer voice over. Among them is the incomparable, highly prolific and, sadly, late Don LaFontaine. With a career spanning decades, he seemed to be the John Wayne of his craft – iconic and instantly recognizable, setting the standard for his own brand of machismo. The dusty west, fraught with rollicking tumbleweed, was swapped for a recording booth and became a place where one trades the tethered cowboy hat for a set of bulky headphones.
His likeness was ever-present, though, oddly enough, I wasn’t always cognizant of it. The grizzly timbre of his voice spent years rampaged in and out of my ears, earnestly selling me on the coming summer’s high-budget shoot ’em up. Like orchestral tuning before a symphony, his vocal presence prepped me for the on-coming action. It was only years later that I finally realized the same guy spoke to me every time my eight-year-old self turned on the VCR and sat Indian-style in front of the living room TV, patiently waiting through the previews to watch Arnold travel back in time (now as a good guy) and don leather and shades. A quick perusal of his Wikipedia page states he lent his instantly recognizable pipes to over 5,000 films. With such a mighty oeuvre, it’s understandable that his parting left a void in the voice over community.
Since that untimely departure in 2008, however, it seems the industry hasn’t truly recovered. In fact, it seems any attempt at recovery has, at best, been minimal and spiritless. The movie voice over doesn’t hold the prominence and vitality it once did. I just watched ten trailers to blockbusters slated to arrive in theaters within the coming months – only one had a voice over. Compare that to, say, 2001, when seven of the top ten grossing movies of that summer had voice overs in their trailers. It’s not exactly scientific – just figures at a glance – but it helps confirm the notion that husky vocal chords aren’t put to work like they were in days of yore.
In fact, the craft could be sputtering toward its cinematic grave. Conan the Barbarian was the only trailer with a voice over, but what a shoddy attempt at recapturing the essence of LaFontaine’s doom-laden rasp it was. Beginning with the overbearing thud of tribal drums, unconvincing images of monsters and cheesy CGI sparks and smoke, the first few seconds set the stage for one of those misleading trailers, the kind that sets the mood for something dark and melodramatic, only to yank the soda-soaked rug out from under the audience’s feet and – ha! – reveal it was a comedy the whole time. “THIS SUMMER,” cries the objectively silly and hackneyed voice of the narrator, and the audience prepares for the imminent humorous turn.
“This is a joke,” whispered my compatriot assuredly between buttery mouthfuls of criminally overpriced popcorn.
I nodded in agreement, sincerely expecting the inevitable appearance of another nameless comic of the fledgling goofball caliber. But that moment never came. Instead, I was confronted with the cold, hard truth that (A. the Conan franchise is being jump-started sans my favorite musclebound kindergarten disciplinarian; (B. the odious gob of 3D titles is one flick stronger; and (C. the summer trailer voice over just ain’t what is used to be.
There’s no denying that aforementioned void. It exists, certainly, because of Mr. LaFontaine’s passing, and it’s liable to stay there, partly because the voice over just isn’t as fashionable as it once was, and, of course, because nobody can do it like Don. And perhaps nobody would want to. It may sound silly and trite, but, when one really thinks about it, his contribution to the movie-going experience was indispensable and truly unique. Take any crowd at any multiplex on any given Friday night over the past few decades, and Don, at some point, spoke to every couple, senior citizen and googly-eyed kid in the room. Almost overbearing in his delivery, he accomplished such a feat in a subtle manner. To recapture the magic of “Thunder Throat” would be an exercise in, well, futility.
My eulogy is long, long overdue, but I miss the guy, so every now and then, when in need of a quick jolt of nostalgia, I’ll slide an old VHS from its withered cardboard case and make my way to my TV’s built-in VCR. Sitting Indian-style, with mouth agape, I’m transported back a decade and a half, to the days of Channel 3 and tracking-induced frustration. But it’s not until the bey0nd-familiar green “PREVIEW” screen fades to black that the nostalgia really kicks in, when Don’s booming orations describe 1997’s surefire white-knuckle thriller. I saw it years ago, but just because he says it, I can’t help but get excited.