Urban Cowboy – 40th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)

Urban Cowboy‘s Blu-ray release feels like an awfully long time coming. Sure, the film hasn’t stuck in the conversation as well as other’s in Travolta’s career be it the iconic masterpiece Saturday Night Fever or the reappraisal and film nerd appreciation of Brian DePalma’s Blow Out. The 1980 mechanical bull riding drama set to country music is one of the most essential films in his entire career, not just his break out run. It was almost what Saturday Night Fever was for country music and remained his last hit and respected film for quite some time. You may remember (or not), that when I had my Blu-ray Wishlist articles as a weekly instead of yearly piece, Urban Cowboy was one of the first additions. That was over six years ago, which seems pretty crazy. Luckily it hit a milestone and is coming to the format with some bonus features attached. Surprisingly, this one didn’t get put with the Paramount Presents label, but that’s no bother. Its welcome any way they’d like to deliver.


Original published as Brandon’s Blu-ray Wishlist – February 20, 2014 here on Why So Blu. Some tweaks and additional thoughts have been added. 

After moving to Pasadena, Texas, country boy Bud Davis (John Travolta) starts hanging around a bar called Gilley’s, where he falls in love with Sissy (Debra Winger), a cowgirl who believes the sexes are equal. They eventually marry, but their relationship is turbulent due to Bud’s traditional view of gender roles. Jealousy over his rival, Wes (Scott Glenn), leads to their separation, but Bud attempts to win Sissy back by triumphing at Gilley’s mechanical bull-riding competition.

We may not get excited for a new John Travolta film or think much about it when one does come along, but there were two periods in the man’s career when he was one of the best around and you got excited for his work.  From 1975 to 1981, Travolta rose to fame and held strong be it critically or financially.  He had a popular and critically adored television series (Welcome Back, Kotter) and he was taking on film roles in interesting projects and ones that would catapult him into an iconic status.  1981’s Blow Out was a great film, but didn’t take at the box office, and his follow-up Staying Alive (the Sylvester Stallone written and directed sequel to Saturday Night Fever) shot him into a land of obscurity until Quentin Tarantino famously resurrected his career with Pulp Fiction.

Travolta’s last hit with both box office and critics before his fame and fortune disappeared for pretty much a decade was Urban Cowboy.  It also was a healthy bounce back for Travolta after the reviled and box office disappointment that was Moment By Moment.  Urban Cowboy almost stands as the final chapter in a trilogy of musical-related films in Travolta’s career beginning with Grease and continuing to Saturday Night Fever.  This time the focus was on country, honky tonk and southern rock music.  It even features known performers in cameo form including the Charlie Daniels’ Band (yes, they do “Devil Went Down To Georgia” in the film), Bonnie Riatt and Johnny Lee.  The film’s impact on the country music scene was even called “Urban Cowboy Movement” in pop country music as the soundtrack was  big hit and had an impact on pop country music.

I’ll be honest, I am not a big fan of country music (especially modern era country).  Oddly, I can get behind it in this film, as it really enhances the film and plays along as sort of its own piece to this puzzle.  One thing the film really does well is committing to being country and about that lifestyle.  Never does it ever stray or try and “fish out of water” or pull an “opposites attract” approach.  While our story follows a character that moves from the countryside to a bigger city (Houston), its still in the south and focuses on that cowboy lifestyle at all times. Urban Cowboy doesn’t fetishize it though, it truly plays on the horrors and problems that come with the cowboy bad boy stereotype.

John Travolta seems an odd choice to play such a character as Bud Davis, but that’s what’s great about the movie and impressive about Travolta’s range.  Within just a few minutes, any apprehension about him taking such a role is gone.  The man fully digs into it and works with flying colors.  His accent never feels phony or laughable.  And a lot of his success falls into his physical performance and mannerisms throughout the film.  When you look at him you can truly see everything this guy is and where his mentality is at.  It’s a great performance and one that I think time may have truly overlooked.  One might worry that it may not hold up, but I was impressed with how good he still is in this movie.

Beyond the country music, there is some quite compelling drama going on in the film.  The movie can play as kind of a look at people getting married either too young or too soon.  I’m not sure how this film played with general audiences, but the subject matter regarding the couple of Bud and Sissy is pretty dark and at times difficult to watch.  This isn’t a happy story about two lovers who were meant to find each other.  This is the one about them finding each other too early and going through an extremely rocky road to figure out they are right for each other. Its a story about an alpha realizing his image and expectations of the opposite gender are toxic and ruining a good thing he may have and a woman unfortunately drawing herself into abusive relationships due to having a certain type.

Both central characters go through some difficult times, and Sissy probably gets the worst of it as she winds up being stuck with Scott Glenn who does a hell of a job playing the film’s villain.  As much as this movie wants to make you think you’re wrong about this guy like Sissy wants Bud to believe, you just don’t trust him.  And as it unfolds Glenn keeps amping it up and plays one of those roles that you just can’t wait to see this bastard get what’s coming to him.

Winger gives an Oscar caliber performance in the character of Sissy. She’s able to go toe to toe with everyone and is a hell of a bull rider, selling those scenes with such ease. There’s a tragic nature to Sissy and its all captured in Winger’s eyes in incredible fashion. Her attraction to hard nosed cowboys is her downfall, but she’s able to convert Travolta’s “Bud” in showing him and making him find the realization that a woman’s worth is more than old fashioned values would lend him to believe. I imagine things have worked for the best and a happy ending is there for her reward as she’s really not to blame for anything aside from her desire to challenge and wind up submission and unable to truly leave someone no matter how toxic.

Bud’s arc in the film the film is an impressive feat.  He’s a loud, hot-shot cowboy whose ultimately downfall is his pride.  You get really pissed with him and his anger and the his extreme devotion to the mechanical bull riding (we’ll get to that), but once its all revealed why and where he’s come from, its almost a shocking plot twist.  I really really enjoyed the character journey of Bud in the film as what you’re watching and what it ends up being for him emotionally and as a person is not what you think it is but incredibly satisfying. This guy starts out as a complete asshole. He’s cocky, sexist and an abusive physically and mentally. The 180 the script is able to do on the guy is nothing shy of a miracle as in the early half, he’s never right and you’re not rooting for him.

Most of this film is centered around mechanical bull riding at a bar.  And, I must admit, this sounds kinda silly and goofy to discuss.  The drama surrounding it all can be a bit weird and such, but it’s just the device and method used to get this story and its character drama going.  The conviction the actors and direction have for it, sells it hard though and brings an intensity, drama and almost erotic nature to it at times. This was also 1980 and I don’t know my history of the art of mechanical bull riding, but it may have been a new “thing” back then.  Plus, by the end, you can’t help but sort of be entranced and held in suspense during the film’s finale (a mechanical bull riding tournament).  Also, a peppy Debra Winger riding that mechanical bull is kinda hot at times, no?

Urban Cowboy remains one of Travolta’s best performances from his early peak years.  The film also was a notable notch on in the world of country music.  Some have even referred to it as doing for country what Saturday Night Fever did for disco.  But, mostly at its center it’s a great little romantic drama that fully explores some of the immaturity and uncertainty of jumping into a big commitment so soon at a young age.  The film also showcases a tremendous arc of a young man consumed by his pride.


For more screencaps from this release, please CLICK HERE.

Encoding: MPEG-4 AVC

Resolution: 1080p

Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1

Layers: BD-50

Clarity/Detail: Urban Cowboy finally upgrades from DVD to Blu-ray with this 40th Anniversary Edition from Paramount. No details are provided on the transfer, though its likely an HD master. Possibly one that’s been featured on streaming for some time now. The film by its nature is one that is very dark and smokey in many scenes. It does carry a nice layer of grain, a crisp looking frame and plenty of details and textures to create a good, true to form experience. Sure, there could be a better transfer and restoration to be had, but until the day there is, this is a rather terrific image to go on.

Depth:  The film has a decent depth of field, and when lit well, you get some good pushback and sense of spacing. It has no problem showing scale off and some of the construction work sequences really look impressive. Motion is cinematic, smooth and doesn’t find itself with any distortion issues.

Black Levels:  Blacks are pretty deep, but still a could tints up from the matte lines in terms of natural darkness. Details and information does disappear a little bit in the consuming bar sequences and nighttime moments.

Color Reproduction:  Colors are pretty solid, bold and reflect a more natural, lifelike presentation. Most of the stuff that pops better come from lights, neon signs and flashier fabrics.

Flesh Tones:  Skin tones are natural and consistent from start to finish. With good lighting, details are pretty ripe and apparent. In darker moments, the close up and medium shots give the most information. Freckles, make-up, cuts, scrapes and bruising showcase their more rougher edges without showing any strings in terms of prosthetic or make-up tricks.

Noise/Artifacts: Clean.


Format(s): English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital, German 2.0 Mono Dolby Digital

Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, German

Dynamics: Urban Cowboy features a pretty true and engaging at the right times mix. The music is pretty loud, layered and intricate, sounding like a real concert in their spotlight moments. Dialogue is set to a good level, with sound effects coming in just about right with the expectation. I’d say this is well above average and really hits the mark when it has to, without going overboard on being revisionist or anything like that.

Height: N/A

Low-Frequency Extension:  Many of the more “action” sounds from the subwoofer feature variety but don’t quite hit as much as you might anticipate, but the music sure hits that beat at concert-like levels.

Surround Sound Presentation: While this one doesn’t go crazy, it still has some fun around the room. Aside from the obvious musical performances making use of the room and crowd/bar chatter, there are moments like a thunderstorm that really plays with the room as well as a moment where you can hear someone enter the trailer door from behind you for example.

Dialogue Reproduction: Vocals are clear, crisp and plenty present in the mix. There was one brief where it ran through the center channel and was pretty low, where it maybe shouldn’t have been. Aside from that, everything is plenty audible in the mix.


Urban Cowboy – 40th Anniversary Edition comes with a digital copy code.

Good Times With Gilley: Looking Back At Urban Cowboy (HD, 15:10) – Mickey Gilley, the owner of the night club in the film (Who also stars as himself in it), gives us the history of the bar, how it came to be a centerpiece of the film, the shoot, getting to know John Travolta and the music and musicians in the film and the big impact it had on country music.

Deleted Scenes (HD, 8:02) – 4 scenes. From the looks of it, these were take from a workprint (VHS source?) as you can see what scene came before and after.

Outtakes (SD, 4:08) – Raw footage of 2 separate dancing sequences from the first bar sequence of the film. One take with Travolta and Winger and 3 takes of Travolta solo.

Rehearsal Footage (SD, 4:05) – Bull riding practice!


Urban Cowboy is a hell of a dual character, romantic drama with a bit of a cultural moment trapped in a bottle attached to it. The film is always invigorating and features outstanding performances from John Travolta, Debra Winger and Scott Glenn. Paramount has FINALLY brought the film to Blu-ray looking and sounding terrific. It also provides some nifty bonus features highlighted by some deleted scenes not released before as well as some other footage. Look at that day 1 price, too. Pick this one up, without question.

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Brandon is the host, producer, writer and editor of The Brandon Peters Show (thebrandonpetersshow.com) on the Creative Zombie Studios Network. At Why So Blu he is a Writer/Reviewer. Brandon is a lifelong obsessive film nerd. As eager to educate in the world of film as I am to learn. An avid lover of horror, schlock and trash. You can also find older essays on his blog Naptown Nerd (naptownnerd.blogspot.com).

1 Response to “Urban Cowboy – 40th Anniversary Edition (Blu-ray Review)”

  1. 1XBet

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