'Urban Cowboy' turns 40: Hats off to the movie that gave us John Travolta's first great comeback

Jim McKairnes
Special for USA TODAY
John Travolta sidled up to the bar in a black hat and big buckle for 1980's "Urban Cowboy."

In a pop-culture year that’s offered one bronc after another, rein this one in: "Urban Cowboy," the honky-tonk-stirring, line-dancing, soundtrack-selling Western romance that teamed a post-"Grease" John Travolta with newcomer Debra Winger, turns 40 this Saturday.

And that’s no mechanical bull.

A quiet hit in a summer headlined by higher-profiles releases "The Shining," "The Empire Strikes Back" and "The Blues Brothers" – not to mention films targeting the same down-home audience, such as "Bronco Billy" and "Honeysuckle Rose" – "Urban Cowboy" rescued Travolta’s imperiled career, made a future three-time Oscar-nominated star of Winger, and launched a country-music crossover groundswell.

The drama is set against the backdrop of the Houston oil industry, focusing on Bud Davis (Travolta), a small-town newcomer to the big city, working refinery construction. But much of the action takes place inside Gilley’s Club, the rough-and-tumble local juke joint where he ends his long days and meets a feisty local named Sissy (Winger). The sparks that come from the combative coupling, along with the music that underscores it and the dance-floor moves that frame it, made the movie one of the summer's top films.

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Travolta trades in the dance floor for a mechanical bull in the 1980 film "Urban Cowboy."

It was considered 26-year-old Travolta’s comeback. Just two summers earlier, he was Hollywood’s biggest star after the back-to-back releases of "Saturday Night Fever" in December 1977 and "Grease" the following June. But his luster was tarnished by the Christmas 1978 release of "Moment by Moment," a box-office dud of a romance that teamed him with Lily Tomlin. The film was scorned and Travolta retreated in its wake.

"Cowboy put him back on top. That it was seen as a sort of “ 'Saturday Night Fever' with country music,” and that, like that hit, it was based on a nonfiction magazine article – Aaron Lathan’s Esquire report “The Ballad of the Urban Cowboy” – helped. (The New York Magazine piece that spiked "Fever," Nik Cohn’s “Tribal Rights of the New Saturday Night,” has since been exposed as largely fictional.)

If it wasn’t the financial bonanza that his two other-dance-related films had been, "Urban Cowboy" nonetheless burned up the dance floors and the record charts as it played in theaters. (Trivia alert: Patrick Swayze’s mother Patsy and wife Lisa Niemi were the film's choreographers.)

The music heard onscreen in Gilley’s Club – a real and celebrated honky-tonk co-owned by country performer Mickey Gilley – was heard across the country as one club after another, in big cities and small, cashed in on a boot-scooting surge. Six singles (Gilley’s “Stand By Me” cover, “Look What You’ve Done to Me” by Boz Scaggs, “Lookin' for Love” by Johnny Lee, Grammy-winning “Could I Have This Dance” by Anne Murray, “Love the World Away" by Kenny Rogers and Joe Walsh’s “All Night Long”) charted between May and August, with some becoming future wedding-day must-plays. They contributed to a double-LP soundtrack that hit No. 1 on the country charts and crossed over to the pop top 10 as well. 

Screen sparks flew when Debra Winger and John Travolta teamed up for "Urban Cowboy."

Director James Bridges, who died in 1993, said that he saw the film as a treatise on a modern-day “mechanized” West, though the poster was pure Travolta-as-Marlboro-Man, promising a tale of “Hard Hat Days and Honky-Tonk Nights.” It was night-and-day different than Bridges’ previous film, 1979’s social-protest drama "The China Syndrome," but did just as well at the box office.

It also made above-the-title stars of Scott Glenn, seen in small parts a year earlier in "More American Graffiti" and "Apocalypse Now," and Debra Winger, whose fame was sealed as much by her ability to go toe-step-to-toe-step opposite Travolta in her first big film role as by her steamy scenes atop El Toro, Gilley’s mechanical bull. 

As for Gilley’s, the showplace closed in 1989 and burned a year later in what was ruled a case of arson. Those looking for love in Texas these days can direct their feet several hours northwest to Mickey’s Dallas – though plans for an all-new Houston-based Gilley’s were announced last December.

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