Historical background and production
The film's screenplay was adapted by Aaron Latham and James Bridges from an article by the same name in Esquire Magazine written by Latham. The original Esquire article centered on the romance between two Gilley's regulars named Dew Westbrook and Betty Helmer. Westbrook and Helmer's real life relationship became the inspiration for the on screen romance between John Travolta's and Debra Winger's characters "Bud" and "Sissy". The movie was directed by Bridges. Some film critics referred to the movie as a country music version of Saturday Night Fever. The film grossed almost $47 million in the United States alone, and temporarily recovered Travolta from the 1978 flop Moment by Moment, but the film was nowhere near as successful as either Saturday Night Fever ($94 million) or Grease ($188 million).
While filming Urban Cowboy, John Travolta had a private corner at the Westheimer Road location of the Ninfa's restaurant in Houston.
Urban Cowboy was the first motion picture to be choreographed by Patsy Swayze, which launched her career as a film choreographer.
John Travolta, et al, rented a home in the Memorial area overlooking Buffalo Bayou on or about 110 Shasta Drive, Houston, Texas 77024. The entourage was frequently seen commuting between Lindenwood Drive and Shasta Drive while filming in Houston.
Bud Davis (John Travolta) moves to Houston for a job in the city's oil refinery industry. He hopes to save enough money to move back to his hometown of Spur, Texas and buy some land. Bud stays with his Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) and his family, with whom Bud is close. Bob takes Bud to the local honky tonk, Gilley's (at the time, an actual bar in Pasadena, co-owned by singer Mickey Gilley and his record producer Sherwood Cryer). Bud quickly embraces the local nightlife there. Bud gets a job at the oil refinery where Bob works and quickly befriends his co-workers.
At the club, Bud meets Sissy (Debra Winger), who asks if he is a real cowboy. They fall in love, and soon after Bud asks Sissy to marry him. Their wedding reception is held at Gilley's, and they immediately move into a brand new mobile home. Although they are in love and passionate, Bud and Sissy have many quarrels. Sissy is a feisty, independent woman while Bud believes in traditional gender roles. However, their lives settle into a routine of work by day and Gilley's at night, where Bud takes a liking to riding the mechanical bull. When Sissy also wants to ride, he forbids her from doing so.
Wes Hightower (Scott Glenn), is released on parole from Huntsville Penitentiary, lands a job at Gilley's running the mechanical bull with his old friend and Gilley's employee Steve Strange (James Gammon). He openly flirts with Sissy, who is flattered and attracted to Wes, but a drunken Bud is enraged at the insult and ends up in a fist fight with Wes. Sissy, against Bud's wishes, spends time at Gilley's during the day with Wes, Steve, and her friend Jessie learning how to ride the mechanical bull. Meanwhile at the refinery Bud has a serious accident and is sent home for the day. That night at Gilley's, Jessie and Wes convince Sissy to ride the bull. She does it to impress Bud but he becomes angry and resentful that Sissy defied and lied to him and he challenges her. When Bud falls off during his second ride in that challenge, Wes intentionally swings the bull around fast, breaking Bud's arm. At home, Bud asks Sissy if she is having an affair with Wes which she denies and Bud forbids her from riding the bull anymore. Sissy accuses Bud of being jealous because she rides the bull better than he can. Bud slaps her and throws her out of the trailer.
The next night Sissy and Bud see each other at Gilley's but an angry Sissy refuses to talk to Bud. To make Sissy jealous, Bud introduces himself to a beautiful girl named Pam (Madolyn Smith) and dances with her, while Sissy dances with Wes. Bud and Pam leave together to have sex but Sissy, hurt and upset, declines Wes' sexual advances. Later, Sissy moves out of Bud's trailer and into the run-down trailer behind Gilley's where Wes lives.
Bud wants to enter the mechanical bull riding rodeo at Gilley's to win the $5,000 prize and starts training with his uncle Bob, a former rodeo champion. One night while working at the refinery, Bob advises Bud to swallow his pride and make up with Sissy citing his own past behavior nearly cost him his wife and children. Bob is killed that night when lightning strikes the refinery. Meanwhile, Sissy returns to their mobile home to pick up her things, but she also cleans house and leaves Bud a note saying she hopes they can get back together. Pam arrives and after Sissy leaves throws the note away. Meanwhile, Sissy arrives home and catches Wes having an affair with her friend Marshalene (Connie Hanson), another Gilley's employee. Wes orders Sissy to cook him a meal and when she, hurt at his infidelity, angrily refuses Wes becomes physically abusive.
At Bob's funeral, Sissy tells Bud that Wes was fired from Gilley's for hurting too many people with the mechanical bull and is unable to find another job. They plan on going to Mexico after Wes wins the $5000 prize at the bull riding rodeo. It is Bud who wins the contest, however, and Pam, realizing that he still loves Sissy, encourages him to reconcile with her. Bud leaves to find Sissy before she departs for Mexico with Wes.
Sissy refuses to go to Mexico with Wes, but relents after he hits her. He orders her to wait for him in her car behind Gilley's. Unknown to Sissy, Wes is inside Gilley's stealing the entry money. Bud finds Sissy in the parking lot and tells her he still loves her and apologizes for hitting her. She reciprocates and they embrace. Seeing Sissy's bruised face, a furious Bud goes after Wes and a fight ensues at the bar entrance. The fight causes Wes to drop his gun, and the stolen money falls from his jacket. Bud overpowers Wes punching him several times and pins him down on the floor. Gilley's staff, having discovered the robbery, apprehend Wes. Bud and Sissy, reconciled, go home together.John Travolta as Bud Davis
Debra Winger as Sissy Davis
Scott Glenn as Wes Hightower
Madolyn Smith as Pam
Barry Corbin as Bob Davis
Brooke Alderson as Corene Davis
Cooper Huckabee as Marshall
James Gammon as Steve Strange
Steve Strange as Sam Strange
Mickey Gilley as Himself
Johnny Lee as Himself
Bonnie Raitt as Herself
Charlie Daniels as Himself
Ellen March as Becky
Jessie La Rive as Jessie
Howard Henson as Himself
Connie Hanson as Marshalene
Tamara Champlin Gilley Background Vocalist
Becky Conway Gilley Background Vocalist
Jerry Hall as Sexy Sister
Cyndy Hall as Sexy Sister
Critical reception and legacy
The film received generally positive reviews from critics. On Rotten Tomatoes, the movie received a 77% "Fresh" rating. "Urban Cowboy is not only most entertaining but also first-rate social criticism," said Vincent Canby of The New York Times. Variety wrote, "Director James Bridges has ably captured the atmosphere of one of the most famous chip-kicker hangouts of all: Gilley's Club on the outskirts of Houston."
The film gave Pasadena and Houston a brief turn under the Hollywood spotlight. Andy Warhol, Jerry Hall, and many other celebrities attended the premiere in Houston. Mickey Gilley's career was re-lit after the film release, and the soundtrack started a music movement.
The movie featured a hit soundtrack album spawning numerous Top 10 Billboard Country Singles, such as #1 "Lookin' for Love" by Johnny Lee, #1 "Stand by Me" by Mickey Gilley, #3 (AC chart) "Look What You've Done to Me" by Boz Scaggs, #1 "Could I Have This Dance" by Anne Murray, and #4 "Love the World Away" by Kenny Rogers. It also included songs that were hits from earlier years such as #1 "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" by the Charlie Daniels Band and "Lyin' Eyes" by the Eagles. The film is said to have started the 1980s boom in pop-country music known as the "Urban Cowboy Movement" also known as Neo-Country or Hill Boogie.
Released as a double LP, re-released on CD in 1995.
- "Hello Texas" – Jimmy Buffett (2:33)
- "All Night Long" – Joe Walsh (3:50)
- "Times Like These" – Dan Fogelberg (3:02)
- "Nine Tonight" – Bob Seger & The Silver Bullet Band (6:35)
- "Stand By Me" – Mickey Gilley (3:35)
- "Cherokee Fiddle" – Johnny Lee (4:06)
- "Could I Have This Dance" – Anne Murray (3:14)
- "Lyin' Eyes" – Eagles (6:23)
- "Lookin' for Love" – Johnny Lee (3:41)
- "Don't it Make You Want to Dance" – Bonnie Raitt (3:29)
- "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" – Charlie Daniels Band (3:35)
- "Here Comes the Hurt Again" – Mickey Gilley (2:41)
- "Orange Blossom Special" / "Hoedown" – Gilley's "Urban Cowboy" Band (2:06)
- "Love the World Away" – Kenny Rogers (3:11)
- "Falling in Love for the Night" – Charlie Daniels Band (3:00)
- "Darlin'" – Bonnie Raitt (2:34)
- "Look What You've Done to Me" – Boz Scaggs (5:39)
- "Hearts Against the Wind" – Linda Ronstadt with J. D. Souther (2:58)
On May 28, 2015, it was announced that 20th Century Fox Television had teamed-up with Paramount Television to adapt the 1980s film Urban Cowboy into a television series, and set Craig Brewer to write and direct the pilot, while to executive produce the whole series. Chris Levinson was set as the showrunner and would executive produce the series along with Robert Evans and Sue Naegle. In December, FOX passed on the pilot.