Release Date(s)1980 (June 2, 2020)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B-
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
Urban Cowboy, based on the Esquire article The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit by Aaron Latham, stars John Travolta. Riding a career high in the late 70s with Welcome Back, Kotter, Saturday Night Fever, and Grease, he was cast in the abysmal Moment by Moment. Urban Cowboy once again put him at the top.
Bud (Travolta) leaves his family farm to work in a Houston oil refinery and soon falls into the nightlife of drinking, dancing, and womanizing at Gilley’s, a huge local bar and honkytonk. Gilley’s is populated by cowboy wannabes and pretty girls, with country music, sexual energy, and brawls abounding. Games on the site were installed as outlets for macho aggression, including a mechanical punching bag that measures the force of punches, but the prime attraction is a mechanical bucking bull, which is electronically manipulated and tests a rider’s strength, skill, and endurance.
Bud meets Sissy (Debra Winger). Their mutual attraction is strong and they eventually marry. But Bud has a bad temper and resorts to physical abuse when things don’t go his way, and Sissy isn’t designed to be the happy homemaker. When Sissy starts learning how to ride a mechanical bucking bull from ex-con Wes (Scott Glenn), Bud becomes jealous and throws her out. She turns out to be pretty adept at bull riding, which further incites Bud, who finds solace in the company of Pam (Madolyn Smith), who he spots at Gilley’s. Under the tutelage of his Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin), Bud practices on his old mechanical bull, intending to take first prize at a big upcoming competition.
Though the milieus are markedly different, Urban Cowboy owes a lot to Saturday Night Fever. Both films center on a young man with a dull day job who gravitates to the excitement of an after-sunset world in which he shines. In both, the character evolves from macho posturing and a disdain for women to an appreciation of the finer qualities of the female sex. But the screenplay for is terribly thin and the Bud character is not a very nice person. The bucking bull may be a visual metaphor for the kind of masculinity that tests the ability to endure bumps and bruises rather than how to be a good man.
Country music fuels the dancing in the bar scenes but Travolta dances little, though when he does, he’s very good. His overall performance, however, is pretty much brooding, jealous stares, and outbursts. Self-absorbed and swaggering through Gilley’s in western shirts, tight jeans, and Stetson, his Bud is a duded-up Tony Manero with a touch of Gene Autry. Travolta looks great, and it’s disappointing to see him in his early scenes with a full beard. Happily, the beard comes off soon enough.
Winger is very good as Sissy, a sassy gal who falls hard for Bud and jumps into marriage before getting to know him better. During the rough early days of their marriage, I kept thinking this is a good time for Stand By Your Man to play on the soundtrack. Winger is best in her reaction shots, looking terribly vulnerable and hurt in some scenes and seductive in others. With not much dialogue to build a performance around, she conveys both sex appeal and a girl-next-door innocence.
At 134 minutes, the film is too long and could stand some pruning. Director James Bridges includes many repetitive scenes. Aside from a few scenes of Bud at his oil refinery job, in his trailer home, and as he bids farewell to his farm family, most of the action is at Gilley’s, and this emphasis leads to visual fatigue, dulling their impact. With lesser lights than Travolta and Winger, Urban Cowboy would be a picture only for the country music crowd. The character of Wes, the resident bad guy, is awkwardly included to stretch out the narrative, but the soundtrack is the only aspect of the film that percolates. Seeing Bud’s physical abuse portrayed so forcefully creates squirms and winces today, especially given the #MeToo revelations.
Urban Cowboy is available for the first time on Blu-ray with 1080p resolution, and is presented in the widescreen aspect ratio of 2.39:1. The overall picture quality is disappointing. The scenes in Gilley’s, in particular, are dark and the actors blend into the background. This might have been due to difficulty in placing lights in the bar/dance hall. Clouds of smoke provide atmosphere and apparently come from cigarettes, but few actual smokers are shown. There is some nice silhouetted backlighting as Bud and Sissy drink a beer at a table and as Sissy walks from a sun-drenched street into the soft, dim lighting of Gilley’s. Assorted neon signs along the bar break up the dark interior. The color palette is fairly subdued, though Travolta wears a few red shirts with different styles that make him stand out from the crowd. Pam’s apartment is ultramodern and its floor-to-ceiling windows look out on the lights of Houston.
The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is at its best in showcasing the music, a key ingredient of the film. Songs are heard either whole or in part and provide mood. Country tunes are performed on stage or heard under dialogue, adding life and contributing tremendously to the atmosphere of the entire film. Dialogue, however, lacks crispness and sounds muddy in many places. Ralph Burns’ score includes a plaintive guitar solo theme for Bud. Ambient sound in Gilley’s is well balanced, with crowd noise, music, dialogue, and brawling often occurring in the same scene. Fight scenes contain sweetened punches, oomphs, and bodies falling. Other audio options include German and French 2.0 Dolby Digital, with optional subtitles in English, English SDH, German, and French.
Bonus materials include a featurette, deleted scenes, outtakes, and rehearsal footage.
Good Times With Gilley: Looking Back at Urban Cowboy – Mickey Gilley narrates this featurette and talks about the Pasadena, Texas club that bears his name and is the main location for the film. The club opened in 1971 and could hold about 750 people, but over time, wings were added to accommodate anywhere from 2,500 to 3,500 people. Many country and rock artists, including George Strait, Alabama, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Fats Domino, and Jerry Lee Lewis, played at Gilley’s. The mechanical bull was installed to attract customers and it “was a big thing back then.” Gilley didn’t like Aaron Latham’s article because he felt it made fun of country music and its fans, but he didn’t badmouth the article when he learned about plans for a film to be made based on it starring John Travolta. Paramount filmed on location to give the film authenticity. Gilley remembers director James Bridges and crew members calling for “more smoke.” “James Bridges was down-to-earth and nice to everybody.” Gilley liked Travolta’s performance, even after initial doubts that a guy from the northeast could believably portray a Texas blue-collar worker. Performers on the soundtrack include Anne Murray, Boz Scaggs, Bonnie Raitt, and the Charlie Daniels Band. Gilley is pleased that the film introduced a wider audience to country and western music. Summing up, Gilley notes, “I never believed my career would follow a mechanical bull… It’s been a great ride.”
Deleted Scenes – Four scenes not used in the theatrical version of the film are included:
- Your folks didn’t like me, did they?
- Rent’s free. Can’t beat that.
- I guess I better find myself another job.
- How come I ain’t seen ya at Gilley’s?
Outtakes – These unused takes of John Travlota and Debra Winger dancing all begin with clapboard markers.
Rehearsal Footage – All of the footage features Debra Winger and John Travolta on the mechanical bull, working to keep their balance as they perform the required action.
– Dennis Seuling