Directed by James Bridges
HEE YAW! Hoo-doggies, this was a good’un, y’all! Now before you starts to saying I don’t know shit from Shinola, hear me out. You might be like I was and think that Urban Cowboy is “that mechanical bull movie,” and you’re not wrong. But what I wasn’t prepared for was just how engrossing and well-made “that mechanical bull movie” would be. Even though previous Valentine’s film Perfect (the pelvic gyration instructional film) was made by the same team (journalist/screenwriter Aaron Latham and director James Bridges), I still had no idea that this would be anything more than John Travolta looking cool in a cowboy hat for two hours. There’s definitely a lot of that, don’t get me wrong, but there’s so much more to Urban Cowboy than it would appear at first glance.
The story is actually rather similar to Perfect, just substituting mechanical bull riding for the aerobic thrusts. Kinda. Anyway, the basic framework is the same, with a new guy entering a sub-culture and immersing himself in it completely. Judging off of the two films, I really wish the Latham/Bridges team had made more films, plumbing the depths of trendy American life from sea to shining sea, but I guess we’ll have to be content with the two we got. Anyway, the film opens as Bud (John Travolta) is leaving his family and his small town to find success in the big city of Houston. His uncle lives there and he helps him get a job at the oil refinery where he works. But first he takes Bud to Gilley’s, a real-life Texas honky-tonk, and it changes Bud’s life. There he meets Sissy (Debra Winger), a hot lil’ spunky cowgirl looking for a real cowboy, and within a few days the two done got hitched!
This all changes when Scott Glenn’s character is introduced. Bud and Sissy take a trip to the convict’s rodeo and Bud waxes poetic about how much he enjoys and respects the convict bull-riders because they don’t have anything to lose. He boasts and talks from afar about how impressive they are, but it’s a different story when the best of these convict riders is released and shows up at Gilley’s bar. For once, Bud is not the top dog, and he doesn’t quite know what to do with that. Confronted with a “real cowboy,” Bud is quickly revealed as the urban cowboy he is, and his wall of over-confidence is quickly broken.
I unconditionally loved everything about Urban Cowboy, but I must single out two specific scenes as my favorites. The first is when Bud and Sissy dance for the first time. The camera circles around the dance floor as they do the iconic Texas Two Step, weaving in and out of other dancers. It’s a much sweeter moment than the pelvic gyrations of Perfect‘s sexually fierce aerobics, but it carries a lot of the same sexual tension and passion. Eventually the dance gives way to deep, sensuous kisses and this moment is arguably the most charming and romantic moment in all four of the films we’ve covered for Valentine’s Day.
The soundtrack is an incredible grouping of excellent late ’70s and early ’80s country cuts, perfectly capturing the country pop movement that eventually took over the genre completely. But this was when country pop was great and still genuine, before every singer sounded the same and the songs were about stupid shit like achy, breaky hearts and sexy tractors. You can’t go wrong with live performances from Bonnie Raitt and Charlie Daniels, and Urban Cowboy has those and more. There are definite perks to setting a film in a bar with live music!
On top of all that, I found the mechanical bull riding in the film to be incredibly interesting to watch. There’s a lot of it, and I can imagine some feeling like it’s far too much, but I was glued to the screen whenever someone would mount that steel bovine. The rider’s movements looked somehow faked, as if they were computer models. “The human spine doesn’t really move like that, does it?” I thought. It was nuts how engaged I was by the bull riding, but I’m sure a lot of it was due to the incredible cinematography. The smoky, wood interior of the country bar is captured perfectly, and there isn’t a bad shot in the movie. It’s perfect.
So if you’ve ever looked at this movie and thought, “Psssh, I’m not watching that stupid mechanical bull movie,” you totally should! I thought that exact thing many times before, but Urban Cowboy absolutely blew me away. And even if you can’t get into the country music, the Texas Two Step or the mechanical bull-riding, Urban Cowboy features some of the best little cowgirl outfits I’ve seen in a film. What’s not to like about this movie?