When the evening sun goes down
You will find me hangin' round
The new life ain't no good life
But it's my life.
"Night Life" by Willie Nelson
For the blue-collar workers in Houston's oil refineries and plants, playing cowboys is something to do in the evening. Gilley's, a gigantic honky-tonk bar capable of holding over 7,000 customers, offers plenty of ways to tap into the myth of the Old West. You can ride the mechanical bull for $5 and prove your physical fitness and determination; you can dance the Texas two-step and romance the girls; or you can drink and brawl whatever your inclination.
The hero of this movie directed by James Bridges (The China Syndrome) is Bud Davis, a farm boy who has come to Houston to find the good life. His uncle helps him land a low-paying refinery job. Nights at Gilley's, dressed in a silk shirt and hip-hugger jeans, Bud is a hungry youth on the loose. There he meets Sissy, a husky voiced coquette who has a thing for "real cowboys." Although the two don't ride off into the sunset, they are married before they know much about each other.
Their initial sexual connection quickly wears thin, especially when Bud suspects that Sissy is having an affair with Wes, the ex-con who runs the mechanical bucking bull at Gilley's. Actually all she's doing is learning how to ride. When Bud takes up with Pam, a rich oilman's daughter, Sissy turns in earnest to Wes, a hard drinker who teaches her about true grit. In the end, Bud faces his rival in a rodeo contest riding the mechanical bull for a big cash prize.
Urban Cowboy, written by Bridges and Aaron Latham, is about the nightlife of these frustrated individuals who find neither adventure nor fulfillment in their daytime existences. John Travolta resurrects his boyman character of Saturday Night Fever the one who struts like a macho male to be reckoned with but inwardly is a confused little kid. Despite all the hoopla about his superstar status, the actor is easily overshadowed in this film by Debra Winger as Sissy and Scott Glenn as Wes. One is pouting sensuality and the other is smoldering rage.
The film's soundtrack, with music by Bonnie Raitt, The Charlie Daniels Band, and others, provides the wobbly storyline with much needed transitions. The key to understanding and grudgingly appreciating Urban Cowboy is found in Willie Nelson's lyric: the nightlife may not be good but it's better than anything else because we can control it.