Paramount Pictures has been busy these last few months as they’ve dropped new release after new release on their Paramount Presents line. With plenty more of those coming in July and August, Paramount’s taken a break to release a 40th anniversary edition of the 1980 cultural phenom Urban Cowboy. This first time Blu-ray release includes the outtakes and rehearsal footages on previous DVD releases, but what’ll get you excited is the inclusion of not just four previously unreleased deleted scenes but a 15-minute featurette featuring Mickey Gilley himself. Not only did the soundtrack for Urban Cowboy go triple platinum, the film is credited with starting the “urban cowboy” look that became popularized in the ‘80s as well as aiding in infusing John Travolta’s career with a much-needed boost. If you’re in the mood for a honky-tonk romance, Paramount’s got you covered.
Leaving rural Texas for the riches of Houston, Bud (Travolta) moves in with his Uncle Bob (Barry Corbin) and starts working alongside his uncle at the local chemical plant. During the day, Bud works hard so that he can return home with the funds to buy land of his own, but, at night, Bud goes to popular honky-tonk Gilley’s for beer, dancing, and the chance at some temporary romance. One night, he meets Sissy (Debra Winger), and the two form a quick bond seemingly fueled by a mutual short-fuse. Though the two get married quickly, their friction leads to discord that puts Sissy in the arms of violent parolee Wes (Scott Glenn) and Bud in the arms of wealthy Pam (Madolyn Smith). The question isn’t “do these two love each other,’ it’s whether or not they can realize it before it’s too late to come back.
For those who grew up watching Travolta dance (Grease/Saturday Night Fever), leaning into comedy (Look Who’s Talking series), being a badass (Pulp Fiction/Get Shorty), and kicking ass (Broken Arrow/Face-Off), the notion that the actor has had any kind of slump seems a little ridiculous. Truth is, everyone in their career, entertainer or not, goes through one. For Travolta, one of his early ones came after the less-than-well-received Moment by Moment (1978). But for every fall, there is a rise and many consider Travolta’s performance as Bud to be an iconic one in his lengthy career. Building off the screenplay by Aaron Latham and James Bridges, who also directed the film, Travolta offers a performance that will certainly challenge modern audiences. The actor is as charming as always, but Bud is not inherently likable by current standards. He demands that Sissy clean up the home and cook a meal, despite her also working. He expects her to abstain from what he considers manly pursuits, like riding the mechanical bull installed at Gilley’s. He even goes so far as to slap her when she challenges his jealousy. Granted, the character makes strides through the film to learn why this behavior is wrong, but the character of Bud is only marginally better than his romantic opposition, Wes, who actually cheats on Sissy, hits her more than once, and does worse before the film ends. For Wes, the film offers no redemption, and Glenn has the physical presence to make the character daunting. For her part, Winger pulls off the young, innocent yet sexually powerful, full of agency woman that is Sissy. In a twist, Sissy is the one who approaches Bud to engage in conversation, having seen him on a previous visit and expressed interest via a subtle physical performance. Though Winger as Sissy is weaker than the two men, thus never fighting back against them, she is aware of her sensuality, which brings about one of the most noteworthy bull riding scenes in cinema history. Even cinephiles who haven’t seen Urban Cowboy know about Winger riding the mechanical bull scene. Additionally, Winger presents Sissy as a little ahead of her time, aware that she wants a mate that makes her feel like a partner, who uplifts her, and who will work with her to make both of them better. In short, the fact that all three central characters are fallible is unique as it makes the characters less archetypes and more human. Considering the film is inspired by a Latham’s 1978 Esquire article The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy: American Search for True Grit, it speaks to the performances and the script that they were able to maintain a bit of reality within the fantasy of movie-making.
As for the Blu-ray transfer, it looks about as well as can be expected for a 40-year old film. As this isn’t a 4K remaster or restoration, there’s nothing that immediately grabs you in terms of color palette or clarity. Instead, what you’ll notice is the sound as the audio’s mixed for DTS-HD Master Audio. This ensures that the brief musical performances from celebrated musicians like Bonnie Raitt and Charlie Daniels sound like you’ve just arrived at a concert. Considering the significance of the music within the film, like Johnny Lee’s “Looking For Love,” listening to the film via a 5.1 surround system will ensure that the music envelopes you just as easily as the story may.
The special features are surprisingly sparse for a major anniversary, but the new additions make the Blu-ray well-worth the investment for fans looking for a reason to upgrade. As mentioned, if you own the DVD, the included outtakes and rehearsal footage are things you’ve seen before. The new four deleted scenes are as-expected for this type of material, offering a chance to get a sense of what quite didn’t make it into the final cut. Is it fun to see some addition footage? Sure. Does it really shift anything? Not really. What should be a first stop for fans, though, is the 15-minute featurette “Good Time with Gilley: Looking Back at Urban Cowboy” hosted by Mickey Gilley. He tells stories of his early career, becoming a co-owner in the now infamous Gilley’s, and the true stories that helped inspire the film, as well as a bit of the making of. Though the film didn’t quite inspire anything strong within this reviewer, Gilley’s storytelling is so wonderful, you’ll wish it was longer. Frankly, hearing from Travolta, Winger, and Glenn would’ve nice, as a means of revisiting the experience, but getting the perspective from Gilley is where the real value is.
Urban Cowboy 40th Anniversary Bonus Features
- Good Time with Gilley: Looking Back at Urban Cowboy (15:10)
- Four (4) Deleted Scenes
- Two (2) Outtakes
- Three (3) pieces of rehearsal footage featuring John Travolta and Debra Winger on the mechanical bull
Available on Blu-ray and digital beginning June 2nd, 2020.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.