John Travolta has had a career of many highs and lows. In the late 1970s, Travolta was on a hot streak between his starring role in Welcome Back, Kotter and his back-to-back iconic performances in Saturday Night Fever and Grease. After a minor stumble with Moment by Moment, Travolta returned to round out his music-centric trilogy with Urban Cowboy. While not as financially successful as his previous two efforts, Urban Cowboy marked one of the last hit movies for Travolta for nearly a decade until his career resurgence with the Look Who’s Talking series and Pulp Fiction. The film has surprisingly remained MIA on Blu-Ray until now with Paramount is celebrating the 40th anniversary. For Travolta fans, this is filling an important hole that was missing in his filmography.
In Urban Cowboy, Travolta plays Buford “Bud” Davis, a country boy looking to make some good money in Houston in the midst of a booming oil industry. With a little help from his uncle Bob (Barry Corbin), Bud lands a job as the low man on the totem pole at the local refinery. When they are not working, the people of the town like to set up shop at Gilley’s, the local honkey tonk where people are always boozing it up and getting close on the dance floor. One night he forms a connection with the alluring Sissy (Debra Winger, Terms of Endearment), a local who has a weak spot for cowboys. The relationship moves at the speed of light as the two quickly get married and move into a trailer. The young love is soon put to the test when the traditional values of Bud clash with the forward-thinking ways of Sissy. Add in the advances of a handsome parolee, Wes (Scott Glenn, Castle Rock), with eyes for Sissy and you have a ready-made tale of bruised egos and machismo run amok.
As someone who has little patience for toxic relationships, viewing this film can be a very tough experience. Bud is such an immature baby with abusive habits, even before the two get married, that you are left screaming at Sissy to run far away. When Bud lets his base nature and jealousy get the best of him, a rift forms between him and Sissy that grows throughout the film. Bud picks up another cowboy-loving lady, Pam (Madolyn Smith), while Sissy gives in to the advances of Wes. Unfortunately, Wes is no picnic either as passion is hastily exchanged for another abusive relationship. Bud, at least, has a nice journey to redemption throughout the movie as he sorts out his childish traits and embraces a more enlightened demeanor. Despite this, you almost wish Sissy could just maintain some independence and appreciate Bud’s growth without reuniting with him. Bud is the focus of the film, but Sissy gives it more emotional depth.
Bud works as a character because of the innate charm that Travolta brings with him. Even when he is being a jerk, there is a gleam in his eyes that makes you understand why people are drawn to him. Debra Winger is a highlight as Sissy, playing her equal parts tough and naïve. All she wants out of life is someone to love and treat her with respect, and the audience wants that for her, as well. The film does a wonderful job of bringing this particular lifestyle to the screen with its working class folks who get validation from riding a mechanical bull well; a major plot point of the movie. As a southerner, I have seen my fair share of big trucks screeching down the road and line dancing at local establishments. The film evokes that very specific atmosphere filled with testosterone and broken dreams. It is incredibly well made and keeps your attention throughout, but those with a sensitivity to toxic relationships may not find the overall journey satisfying.
Urban Cowboy finally makes its Blu-Ray debut with a 1080p transfer that is a bit of a mixed bag. From shot to shot the film can look either incredibly clear and detailed or soft and muddy. When the transfer is naturally filmic, there is a great amount of details to clothes and facial features. Thankfully, this is the majority of the film, but there are many moments that are suddenly lacking any kind of significant detail. Colors do not particularly make an impression and the black levels do not hold up the best to scrutiny with some noticeable crush. This is the best that the film has ever looked on home entertainment, but a new scan could have done wonders to make it more consistently great.
The Blu-Ray comes with a very good DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track. One of the highlights of the film is the assortment of famous acts that pop up at Gilley’s such as Bonnie Raitt and The Charlie Daniels Band. This music acts as an emotional guide throughout the film, and this track reproduces it beautifully with a focus on the front channels that creeps around to the rear. Dialogue comes through clearly in the center channel and only falters in pitch in a few off instances. Ambient noise engages the rear speakers well, and when things get violent on screen punches land with a hefty hit. Certain scenes could be a bit more dynamic in the sound design, but overall this track suits the movie really well.
- Good Times with Gilley – Looking Back at Urban Cowboy: A fifteen-minute retrospective with real-life founder of Gilley’s, Mickey Gilley, cousin of Jerry Lee Lewis. Mickey reflects on opening up the honkey tonk, shooting the film, contributing songs, and how the film impacted his life. This is a fun feature that shows how a film can impact culture in a real way.
- Deleted Scenes: Four deleted scenes totaling eight minutes are included here in standard definition. These scenes are actually really worthwhile and provide some nice character development for Bud, Sissy and Wes.
- Outtakes: Two videos totaling four minutes of John Travolta and Debra Winger dancing together and then John dancing solo. It is fun to watch them strut their stuff.
- Rehearsal Footage: Three videos totaling four minutes are included here of stars John Travolta and Debra Winger practicing their performance on the mechanical bull separately and then riding the bull together.
Urban Cowboy is narratively taxing film with excellent performances from all involved and a deft command of mood and setting. While it does not personally resonate fully with me, it remains an important landmark in the early career of John Travolta. Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment has finally given the film its long-awaited Blu-Ray debut. The A/V presentation could be stronger after such a long wait, but at least the extra are interesting. If you are a fan of the film, it still looks and sounds better than it ever has previously.
Urban Cowboy: 40th Anniversary Edition is currently available to purchase on Blu-Ray.
Note: Images presented in this review are not reflective of the image quality of the Blu-Ray.
Disclaimer: Paramount Pictures Home Entertainment has supplied a copy of this disc free of charge for review purposes. All opinions in this review are the honest reactions of the author.
Dillon is most comfortable sitting around in a theatre all day watching both big budget and independent movies.