Urban Cowboy (DVD, 2002) Reviews
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Urban Cowboy (DVD, 2002)

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A History of Pasadena Texas

Nov 17, 2007
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:authentic, gritty, realism, focus on the working class

Cons:too many songs, abrupt ending

The Bottom Line: The story of growing up and self discovery has been done before but not like this. Urban Cowboy is worth viewing.

Urban Cowboy (1980) is not that great of a film from an objective standpoint but since I have been a Houstonian nearly all of my life and my first new job after college graduation was in Pasadena I find the film fascinating. The movie is not just Saturday Night Fever (1978) set in Texas by any means.


The story is set around the life of a young 20 something named Bud (John Travolta) as he moves out of his family farmhouse and makes a life for himself in the big city. To be more specific he drives from his hometown to his uncle's newly constructed home in Pasadena, TX to get a job as a worker in a chemical plant. Bud and his extended family spend his first night in town at a local cowboy bar/honnkey tonk called Gilley's (after Mickey Gilley the owner) and it is at this establishment that he subsequently meets and marries a young woman by the name of Sissy (Debra Winger) after a very brief courtship. Tensions soon flair for various reasons and the couple separates as they have flings with other people in an attempt to hurt each other. As this plot line is progressing Bud develops an interest in mechanical bull riding at Gilley's and eventually winds up competing with other cowboys for prize money. The ending is quite predictable but revolves around the question of Bud and Sissy making amends or going their separate ways.


Bud is the epitome of every young man who is no longer a child but also does not completely fit into the adult world and is trying to form a niche for himself. He seeks to create a life for himself with finding a partner, a career, buying a home, and working on his long term plan for his life. How all of these things tend to overwhelm a person since they all occur in close proximity to each other or at the same time was captured perfectly in this film. I am sure any man who is around age 30 or older will greatly identify with this character and see parallels to his own life. John Travolta was effective as Bud because he tends to grow on the viewer as time passes. In the opening sequences of the film he has a full beard and looks ridiculous since his career in the late 70s had him playing juvenile characters that were not too bright. Even in the opening quarter of the film you have trouble accepting that he is a blue collar working man who does back breaking work in a chemical plant. However, once you get to understand why Bud is the way he is and how this is a crossroads time in his life you tend to root for him to be successful.

Sissy, on the other hand, is a character that you want to like but can not come to because of her mannerism and lack of consistency. She is a somewhat stubborn individual at many points in the film but if someone presses enough she gives in and does as she is told. This trait is part of the reason she lands in so much trouble in this film. The redeeming quality of Sissy is that she does have a conscience that kicks in once in a while to try and keep her on the straight and narrow as much as can be. She is not a completely self destructive person but I am sure you know some people like this in your life. Debra Winger was a bit miscast for this production because she did not look like the typical blue collar woman that as personified by the many supporting actress' and female extras in the film. For some reason I found her Texas drawl to be over exaggerated. However, she did have better than average chemistry with Bud so she did not hurt the film greatly.

Pam (Madolyn Smith) is the third main character and the woman who Bud has an affair with as he is separated from his wife. Pam is the daughter of a wealthy oil man who finances her downtown Houston high-rise apartment and new Cadillac Seville. The mixing of the blue and white collar class in this case causes the viewer to feel uncomfortable at best and disgusted as worst. The paradigm presented here was novel because usually the world does not have a problem when a wealthy male has relations with a working class female and holds more of the power in the relationship. While Pam is honest with Bud and claims she goes for the blue collar cowboy type because she is attracted to simple and direct men that know who they are and what they want the viewer can not help but feel that Bud is on the short end of power in this relationship and is too naive to see the problems this condition will generate. Madolyn Smith is not a well known actress and this was her first film but she was perfect for this role. Although she had class, money, and good looks you can not help but hate her for knowingly fooling around with a married man and being part of the reason for his troubles.


As a native of the area it was filmed in I would say the film documents what life was like in the late 70s and early 80s in this part of the world. Pasadena was and still is a working class town situated to the east of Houston. The older homes are exactly as they are shown when Bud arrives at his uncle’s house in the opening minutes of the film. Looking back at the film you find that things have drastically changed in the past two and a half decades. For me this film archives local history and this is a great thing.

More generally speaking, I would say the film captures the culture of the locals in that time brilliantly. These days people in Pasadena have, much like the rest of America, been homogenized with corporate merchants like Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Home Depot, etc.. What people did to have fun and where they went to do it was a very novel thing at the time. A honnkey tonk in those days was for real sort of redneck, rough around the edges, and cowboy mentality sort of patrons; not posers like modern times. Gilley’s was the number one attraction in town and it was very common to find automobiles with their famous bumper sticker all over this area.

The filming was not done to intentionally look a bit rough and gritty but managed to do so and looked very authentic. Editing was not done well because the entire story builds up nicely but comes to an abrupt and predictable resolution towards the end. The music in the film was appropriate and worked well but there were just too many songs. I suppose this contributed to the success of the soundtrack sales so it was not done without reason.


While the story shown in this film is not outstanding it does give us great insight into the universal transition people make in their youth where they go from dependants to self reliant adults. Historically, films of this genre have focused on themes of war or corporate culture when they are serious and usually sex comedies when they are not. The blue collar man who works with his hands to make a living has not been done well since the days of Marlon Brando playing a dock worker.

Another point to consider in this category was this period in US history when the economy was churning along after the stagflation of the 1970s. Yes, a man without an education or technical training could still afford to live and purchase his own home on his income alone while the purchasing power of the dollar was strong. In the film as in real life, people who had work tended not to worry so much about money and lived their lives day to day. These days people of all backgrounds worry about investments and retirement. It is hard to believe such a simple time existed not so long ago.

As mentioned in the opening new statements, this is not a masterpiece of a film but more along the lines of a documentary; at least for me.


I would say this film is suitable for anyone who enjoys stories about everyday people that they can relate to. John Travolta fans will definitely want to see him in his earlier days before he weighed less than 200 pounds. Sorry, but I had to get that in since I recently saw him in Hogs Wild (2007) and someone in the theater blurted out “Look how fat Travolta looks” before people started laughing. The plot is not that great, the acting is average, and the story is not gripping. Despite all of this I would still recommend this film to a friend.

In case you are wondering, Gilley’s closed in the mid 80s and suffered a fire at the hands of an arsonist in 1989. In 2006 the city of Pasadena demolished the shell of the building to make way for a middle school that will be built on the land. Mickey Gilley has opened a new Gilley’s in Dallas, TX where patrons can see the original mechanical bull in person. The restaurant where Bud and Sissy have a fight in the parking lot was demolished in the early 90s but the slab is still there today. The Montgomery Ward behind the restaurant closed about 5 years ago and the building became a flea market. Many parts of the town shown in the film have fallen into disrepair and become slums. For this reason the film is a bit sad and a bit joyous for me. The old Pasadena is gone forever but the memory lives on in every copy of Urban Cowboy.

Recommend this product? Yes

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