Rodeo Season comes and goes, but the legacy of ‘Urban Cowboy’ is forever
It’s usually about this time of year that people polish off their snakeskin boots, dig up their seldom-worn Stetsons and adorn themselves in just about anything with fringe. Facebook timelines fill up with cook-off check-ins and photos of the young’uns decked out in full buckaroo attire. Yep, it’s Rodeo Season! But if the smoked turkey legs, heaping helpings of moist brisket dripping with homemade sauce or gallons of ice cold Shiner Bock aren’t sufficiently channeling your inner cowpoke this year, you can always re-visit the perennial film that – 36 years after its release – still encapsulates the season’s spirit: Urban Cowboy. Here are five reasons the combustible, romantic saga of Bud (John Travolta) and Sissy (Debra Winger) has persevered and is still undoubtedly the ultimate rodeo classic:
1. It’s a primal story.
Bud loves Sissy. Sissy Loves Bud. Wes (Scott Glenn) likes Sissy. Bud fights with Sissy. Wes fights Bud. Sissy likes Wes. Bud likes Pam (Madolyn Smith). Sissy loves Bud again. It’s all pretty basic, right? One of the more captivating elements of the film is how primal in nature all of these characters’ motivations are. They’re not simpletons, but they are people of unsophisticated needs and means. Remember, the central conflict revolves around a mechanical bull and their desire to be the best at riding it! They are simple individuals who, throughout the entire movie, are dealing with very complex emotions and situations even if none of the main characters would be able to articulate them (except perhaps Pam). The charm of the film as a whole is how scaled down everything is, stripped to the very core of impulsiveness guided by the acerbic nature of Bud, Sissy and those around them. In a time when entertainment is dominated by thoughtful, multi-layered plotting with scheming characters and rich dialogue, Urban Cowboy works just as well now as it did in 1980.
2. The soundtrack is fantastic.
Despite being born and raised in Houston, Texas (a hop, skip and jump from where the original Gilley’s in Pasadena once stood) I have never been much of a country music fan. I seriously know maybe ten songs that I really like (most of which are older tunes or country pop like “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”). But Urban Cowboy‘ssoundtrack is absolutely phenomenal. Things get off to a rambunctious start with The Charlie Daniels Band’s “Texas” blaring as Bud cruises down I-45 through downtown H-town. Of course, no one who sees this movie ever forgets Bud and Sissy’s theme song, Johnny Lee’s heartfelt “Lookin’ for Love.”
Music generally creates memorable movie moments, but here the songs serve as intrinsic links to the events within the narrative itself. After all, isn’t it all the more heartbreaking when Bud and Sissy exchange jealous glances before he ditches her and leaves with Pam while the gentle croon of Mickey Gilley’s “Stand By Me” drowns out the din of the club? And how much do we literally feel that sudden escalation – that supreme sense that shit’s about to GO DOWN when we hear those frenetic opening violin notes of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” before Bud and Wes face off?! It sets the stage for an epic, balls-out showdown at the final bull riding competition, giving it all a very grindhouse feel.
3. The film immortalizes Gilley’s. And it looks amazing.
Again, I’m not a country fan, but I do like to have a good time. And Urban Cowboy makes the long-defunct original Gilley’s look like a DAMN good time! The “Cotton-Eyed Joe”-s (Bullshit!), the drunken brawls, the eruption of the rowdy, lustful crowd when Sissy straddles the bull – it’s like Studio 54 for hicks! But admittedly, it looks fun and makes most of the places here in Los Angeles look like broom closets; the famed club once held the Guinness Record as the largest in the world and it looks absolutely massive on-screen! Usually when movie club scenes are shot, they’re on soundstages re-created to look like the venue, but every time we see a scene set at Gilley’s, it’s the actual place and that’s the best thing about Urban Cowboy – while the original building is now long gone (a new location was built in Dallas in 2003), the world’s most famous honky-tonk lives forever on film and gives the movie a unique sense of authenticity. It’s always fascinating when cinema serves as our guide into a subculture we may normally not be exposed to. The Fast and the Furious introduced the mainstream to Southern California street racing/import culture. 8 Mile gave upper-class, suburban Anglo teens a glimpse of Detroit’s underground rap battle scene. Urban Cowboy teleports us to Gilley’s in its prime, offering a snapshot of the country scene’s exuberant night life, warts and all. Speaking of warts…
4. Wes Hightower was a GREAT villain.
I had never seen Urban Cowboy until about seven years ago so the first time Scott Glenn made an impression on me was with his mesmerizing performance as aging drug dealer, Roger, in Training Day. He’s appeared in numerous other films and television shows – recently as another badass, Stick – in the inaugural season of Netflix’s Daredevil. However, it is hard to argue the role he was destined to play was the sinewy, worm-chomping and utterly despicable Wes Hightower. Early on, Wes has some deceptively kind moments trying to woo Sissy away from his arch-nemesis, Bud, but it’s all just a con job to seduce her. Bud, for all of his shortcomings, isn’t vile or vicious – just hot-headed. A lot of his faults can be attributed to youthful arrogance similar to Marlon Brando’s iteration of Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire. Wes, on the other hand, is just a downright evil bastard. “You can’t expect a man like me to be faithful to any woman, honey,” he charmingly tells Sissy, as if fidelity is some kind of burden upon him. He pushes her around their trailer when she challenges him. The final straw is when Wes smacks her into a wall when she resists fleeing to Mexico with him. Glenn’s brilliant, menacing turn as Hightower makes the audience fearful for Sissy and makes us cheer that much louder when Bud returns and defends her.
5. Travolta and Winger are magic together.
It’s a shame these days that younger people associate John Travolta more so with Scientology, rumored homosexuality tabloid fodder and weirdly fondling Idina Menzel’s face at the 2015 Oscars (after anointing her Adele Dazeem the previous year). They weren’t around when Travolta had the box office Midas touch, stringing together a series of global box office smashes – all of which would go on to become undisputed classics – including Saturday Night Fever, Grease and Urban Cowboy. Let me break it down for you, millenials: Travolta from ’78 to ’80 was the definitive cinematic king of cool – simple as that. And Travolta dancing? True wizardry.
Pairing him with Debra Winger at the time was more of a happy accident. According to a 2002 interview with New York Magazine, a dog bite incident led to a production delay for Urban Cowboy, which forced original leading lady Sissy Spacek to depart the project. While Travolta was enjoying the most prosperous stretch of his young career, Winger was a relative unknown. But their unlikely combination was like the Peanut Butter and Jellousy burger at Slater’s 50/50 – it doesn’t seem like it would work as well it does, but it ends up being so deliciously divine, it’s damn near euphoric. In their portrayals of Bud and Sissy, they are kerosene and an open flame igniting with a rampant blaze that burns so hot it hisses like a rattlesnake with twice the ferocity. The film doesn’t work without their engines running inexorably hot and cold from scene to scene. With this forged ambivalence, they found a way to make their on-screen chemistry look so natural and relatable and, to a warped degree, make us envious of their tempestuous, but impassioned romance. It’s enough to make us utter “Damn…” with the same bewilderment Bud has after their last kiss before the credits roll.
Nothing since has depicted the essence of rodeo culture in the forthright, naturalistic way Urban Cowboy achieved nearly forty years ago. Since then, the legendary Gilley’s was destroyed in a fire; Winger willingly faded into seclusion before re-emerging in smaller roles; and Travolta’s career has meandered between forgettable and brilliant turns. But when those three elements melded in 1980, it resulted in a simple country story about bull riding and a reckless love amid the world’s biggest honky-tonk. It’s as rodeo as we’ve ever seen on film.