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Urban Cowboy


In 1980, the world came to know Gilley's bar and Texas country thanks to URBAN COWBOY. I remember an explosion of awareness around country music, mechanical bulls and John Travolta when the drama hit theatres “back in the day”.

Travolta stars as Bud Davis, a country boy with very little life experience who leaves his Momma and Daddy and heads to the big city of Houston and real-life nightspot Gilley’s.

As big as an airport and packed with country & western allure, Gilley’s becomes Bud’s focus, much like Travolta’s Danny found refuge on the disco dance floor in 1977’s “Saturday Night Fever”.

Bud meets Sissy, perfectly played by Debra Winger in her first starring film role. Sissy and Bud fall for each other and quickly find themselves married and crammed into a trailer, with matching mini license plates in the back window of Bud’s pickup. It’s Texas nirvana.

But Writer/Director James Bridges (The China Syndrome) has darker tones of drama ready in the saddle. Scott Glenn (Backdraft) arrives as Wes, a rodeo bull rider fresh out of prison and taking on a handyman job at Gilley’s. He’s the perfect 80’s villain and you’ll love to hate him.

As Bud and Sissy move past the honeymoon stage, their relationship hits a bumpy road. Watching it in 2021, it’s hard to blame Sissy for moving out. Bud is a dim, self-centered, physically abusive bumpkin in a ten gallon hat. Travolta doesn’t shy away from the hard parts of Bud, he’s damn good as a young man with more testosterone than brains.

Travolta had a mechanical bull put in his house two months before filming started and he got so good that you can see that really is him on that bull for every ride.

Winger is excellent as well. Her desperation when she realizes she’s made a very bad choice ending up in Wes’s bed is wrenching.

Madolyn Smith (All of Me, 2010) is excellent as Bud’s new flame Pam. Wealthy, independent and smart, her relationship with Bud is intriguing and never goes quite where you expect it to move.

The soundtrack is loaded with many songs that became huge hits, including songs like “Looking for Love”, “Can I Have This Dance” and “All Night Long”.

The dance sequences are well shot and along with “Saturday Night Fever” and “Pulp Fiction” arguably solidify Travolta as a legendary film hoofer.

Scott Glenn went off script for the now legendary tequila worm sequence and really is one of the least likable bad guys of the era. Poor Sissy, between Bud and Wes, you really do leave the film feeling like she can do so much better than either of these two guys.

When your main character evolves into the hero only because his adversary is so much worse, it becomes challenging to view the film’s ending as a happy one. Bridges definitely wasn’t interested In a traditional, feel-good film. Behind the music, cold beer and line dancing, the Texas landscape is bleak and depressing. Bud and Sissy’s trailer is a filthy mess, Wes’s trailer behind Gilley’s is stark and ominous.

The only escape from the dark are those bright nights at Gilley’s. The only triumph in the film is the hope that somehow these characters will realize there is something more waiting in the daylight.

Darker and more violent than you might remember, URBAN COWBOY rides it’s way to a flawed but interesting B-.

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