Part character study, part cultural exploration, part epic romance, and part musical, Urban Cowboy is s strange movie. On some levels, it’s as serious and thoughtful as any of the other fine films that James Bridges directed. And yet on other levels, it’s very much a corporate product—one can feel the hand of producer Irving Azoff, the manager of the Eagles, in the way the film stretches out during musical sequences, the better to showcase tunes featured on the picture’s soundtrack album. Even the presence of star John Travolta in the leading role reflects the film’s identity crisis. He plays a good-ol’-boy type from Texas, even though Travolta is unquestionably a product of his real-life New Jersey upbringing. This egregious miscasting makes sense whenever the movie drifts into a dance sequence, since audiences loved seeing Travolta move in Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Grease (1978). Yet about halfway through its storyline, the movie shifts from domestic drama and dance scenes to a mano-a-mano duel involving two men testing their mettle while riding a mechanical bull. Why hire a dancer if dancing’s ultimately not that important to the role?
Anyway, the convoluted story beings when Bud Davis (Travolta) relocates from his hometown to the city of Pasadena, Texas, near Houston. Bud’s kindly uncle, Bob (Barry Corbin), takes Bud to a gigantic honky-tonk called Gilley’s, where Bud meets the spirited Sissy (Debra Winger). The two commence a tumultuous relationship that culminates in marriage, estrangement, and separation while Bud starts his career working at a refinery alongside Bob. Concurrently, Gilley’s adds the mechanical bull, which becomes a metaphor representing the stages of the Bud/Sissy relationship. His initial mastery of the bull impresses Sissy, but his subsequent obsession with the machine causes friction. Later, when Sissy decides she wants to try the bull, Bud’s objections represent his inability to respect her. And when Bud squares off against Wes (Scott Glenn), an ex-con who conquers the bull and becomes Sissy’s lover while she’s separated from Bud, the mechanical bull becomes the stage for a climactic battle. Rest assured, the story feels exactly as disjointed and episodic as the preceding synopsis makes it sound, because there’s also a subplot about Bud’s affair with a pretty heiress, Pam (Madolyn Smith).
The funny thing is that despite its unruly narrative, Urban Cowboy is quite watchable. Bridges and cinematographer Reynaldo Villalbos give the picture a moody look by borrowing from the Alan Pakula/Gordon Willis playbook. Glenn and Winger give impassioned performances, effectively illustrating the way id rules the decision-making of people with limited formal education. And Travolta tries his damndest to make his hodgepodge characterization work, using intensity to power through any scene that he can’t energize with skill alone. Furthermore, the honky-tonk atmosphere is intoxicating, at least for a while, because watching acts ranging from the Charlie Daniels Band to Bonnie Raitt rip it up on the Gilley’s stage is as fun as watching cowboys and cowgirls brawl and dance and drink. The movie also makes effective use of two theme songs that became pop hits, Johnny Lee’s “Lookin’ for Love” and Boz Scaggs’ “Look What You’ve Done to Me.”
Most surprising of all, however, is the abundant ugliness in Urban Cowboy. Men treat women horribly in this picture, and women respond by using their wiles to drive men insane. Some of this gets to be a bit much (notably Winger’s eroticized calisthenics while riding the mechanical bull), but there’s something believable about the way the characters play out romantic drama that’s suited for the lyrics of a great country song.
Urban Cowboy: FUNKY