Buford Uan Davis (John Travolta) leaves the family farm for Houston, where his Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) gets him a job working at a refinery in Pasadena. By night, “Bud” becomes a regular at Gilley’s, the mega-saloon featuring “three acres of concrete prairie” inside. There he meets Sissy (Debra Winger) and after some two-step, the couple exchange wedding vows and move into a doublewide trailer.
Bud and Sissy spend almost as much time fighting as they do at Gilley’s. The bar introduces a mechanical bull ride, and Sissy defies her husband by not only wanting to ride it, but taking lessons from a prison rodeo cowboy (Scott Glenn) who Bud got into a dust up with. Bud throws her out, and in an effort to make Sissy jealous, takes up with a girl from uptown (Madolyn Smith) with a cowboy fixation.
Their new partners try their best to keep Bud and Sissy apart, but Bud is obsessed with winning a mechanical bull riding contest and the $5,000 cash prize from Gilley’s. Uncle Bob helps him train. Sissy has shacked up with the prison rodeo cowboy in a trailer behind the saloon, and waits for her husband to swallow his pride and ask her back.
“The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: America’s Search for True Grit” was the title of an Esquire Magazine article written by Aaron Latham in 1978. It dealt with Pasadena petrochemical plant employees who escaped the monotony of their jobs by playing cowboy after hours at Gilley’s, the fabled saloon off Spencer Highway that was at the time, the largest nightclub in the world.
Producer Irving Azoff paid Esquire and Mickey Gilley a fortune – $250,000 – for the film rights to Latham’s story. The journalist adapted the screenplay with director James Bridges. Just as he had on Saturday Night Fever, John Travolta spent weeks preparing for the role, practicing his two-step, acquiring somewhat of a drawl, and learning to ride the mechanical bull.
Urban Cowboy has always been about as deep as a bottle of Bud Light, but I didn’t remember how vapid movie this actually was until I watched it again. Any irony or complexity that might have been featured in the Esquire article is totally absent from the film, which is Hollywood glam, and exists primarily as an advertisement for the soundtrack album.
This movie is all packaging, and lacks even the basics of story, character or dialogue to at least pretend there was more to it than commerce. As for the soundtrack, it’s “progressive country,” and there’s not one authentic country western song to be found in the entire enterprise. No Willie, Waylon or Loretta Lynn. Instead, we get Mickey Gilley, Jimmy Buffet and Dan Fogelberg. Nothin’ says Texas like Dan Fogelberg.
Travolta and Winger look terrific – especially under Reynaldo Villalobos’ lighting – and it’s great to see Barry Corbin or James Gammon in anything, but they’re not the stars of the movie. The star is a mechanical bull, and just as it did to performers at the real honkytonk, its clanging cowbell drowns out anything that might have actually been worth hearing.
The tumultuous story behind Gilley’s, or even a typical night at the joint in its heyday, would have been infinitely more interesting than the blandness that ended up on screen. Filming locations included Deer Park, the Charter refinery in Pasadena, and 2200 South Main in downtown Houston, but my hometown deserves finer representation than this.
The Austin Chronicle thoroughly investigates Gilley’s, “the mother of all Texas honkytonks”.
Aaron Latham’s Urban Cowboy Diaries discuss the film’s development, including alternate casting ideas.
The ’80s Rewind jumps in the DeLorean and provides all sorts of Urban Cowboy trivia, including filming locations.