This year, 2020, marks the 40th anniversary of the iconic movie, Urban Cowboy, starring John Travolta and Debra Winger. In honor of this, I went back and watched the movie again to see how it stood up to the passage of four decades.
The movie is set in Houston, and Bud, played by John Travolta is a small-town cowboy looking to work with his uncle on a pipeline in Houston. He is immediately introduced to a local honky tonk – biggest in the country, in Pasadena TX, just outside of Houston, called Gilley’s. It is at this establishment that he meets Sissy, his future wife, played by Debra Winger. The main conflict of the story happens after Bud and Sissy are married and a mysterious cowboy shows up to Gilley’s who is obviously a professional bull rider. After this strange newcomer shows off his skills on the mechanical bull, Bud becomes competitive and wants to beat this stranger at bull riding and Sissy wants to try riding the bull herself. This dynamic sets up a rather dangerous and victimizing storyline for Sissy’s character, that may not be comfortable to for everyone to watch. This also sets up the major conflict for Bud to stay true to his cowboy nature but learn to question his pride and not to give into his demons.
Possibly, even more important and iconic than the plotline of the movie is the soundtrack. Interestingly the movie featured many country bands who had a chance to act and perform in the movie, as opposed to just have their track playing in the background. This was a huge opportunity for many of the bands. The movie also was said to have started the pop-country movement, and in the 1980s this was known as the “Urban Cowboy” movement. And in 2018 the soundtrack was declared triple platinum.
Recognizable bands from the film include The Charlie Daniel’s band, who played as the live performing band at Gilley’s in the final climactic rodeo showdown. Other iconic artists that were featured in the film are: Jimmy Buffett, Marshall Chapman, Eagles, Dan Fogelberg, Anne Murray, Bonnie Raitt, Kenny Rogers, Linda Ronstadt, Boz Scaggs, Bob Seger, J.D. Souther, and Joe Walsh.
Not all the music had such a fond reception. In fact, the song the movie might be most known for, “Lookin’ for Love,” by Johnny Lee. The critics were harsh to this song, even though it was specifically liked by John Travolta. It was called a “lilting little pop song by influential music historian, Bill Malone, and it was also criticized as being an example of “watered-down cowboy music,” by critic Kurt Wolff. Despite the criticism it quickly rose to the top of the music charts upon the movie’s release, and has remained a staple in country music, as well as one of the most defining tracks in the movie.
Of course, it would be wrong to forget to mention the major spotlight that country musician Mickey Gilley received in this movie. Not only was the country club that most of the movie’s scenes took place in his actual club that he had opened ten years before, he also had his single, “Stand By Me,” that was launched to the top five in the charts after the release of the movie. His entire career was altered by the release of Urban Cowboy. He was not the only one in the country music world that was altered by the release of this movie though. Urban Cowboy changed the country music scene through the 80s and the style and genre showcased and made popular by the movie continues to influence country music to this day.
Written by Lex Voytek