In 1997, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an article for GQ about bartending at a dive in New York City’s East Village. At Coyote Ugly Saloon, the sexy, female-fronted staff danced on the bars, took no shit, and could shoot ‘em back better than the best of them. Disney acquired the film rights to the article and, on Aug. 4, 2000, released an adaptation produced by Jerry Bruckheimer. Coyote Ugly follows Violet Sanford (Piper Perabo, in her breakout role), an aspiring songwriter with terrible stage fright, as she moves from New Jersey to New York to pursue her dreams while supporting herself tending bar. Twenty years later, the film has become a cult classic and a cherished favorite for those who came of age in the early aughts — not only for its empowering storyline, but also for the great music that accompanied it.
Notably, who can forget “Can’t Fight the Moonlight,” the film’s massive theme song that skyrocketed singer LeAnn Rimes, who was 17 at the time and already a country music star, into the pop spotlight. Sonically lush, with loud guitars and dramatic strings layered over a ballad-esque melody and sing-along lyrics vivid with imagery, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” is a brilliant pop song by design — a timeless, hopeful, romantic anthem for chasing your dreams. For two decades, it has been a beloved emblem of its era, a karaoke go-to, and a signature for Rimes.
But fighting the moonlight wasn’t easy. Produced by Trevor Horn, co-founder of new wave band The Buggles and producer for artists like Grace Jones and Pet Shop Boys, and written by the prolific Diane Warren who at that point had penned hits for everyone from Céline Dion and Cher to Aerosmith — “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” almost didn’t exist. Only after a whirlwind last-turn-of-production that included replacing the film’s previous encore, shooting an entirely new ending, and swapping out all of Perabo’s singing vocals for Rimes, mere weeks before Coyote Ugly was due in theaters, did the cherished anthem come to life. For Coyote Ugly’s 20th anniversary, NYLON spoke with LeAnn Rimes, Piper Perabo, Diane Warren, and Trevor Horn for the story of what exactly went down behind the scenes.
THE FIRST CUT
Horn had worked on music for a couple of films, including Toys (the 1992 Robin Williams comedy), but he’d never crafted an entire score. Music supervisor Kathy Nelson knew Coyote Ugly called for something extra special and that Horn would be perfect for the job. Warren was commissioned to write the songs. In preparation for her role as Violet, Perabo took dance and singing lessons, and learned to play guitar. Perabo initially sang “But I Do Love You,” “Please Remember,” and “The Right Kind of Wrong,” and recorded them at Horn’s home studio in California.
PIPER PERABO: We'd shoot all day and then I'd have lessons. The last thing in the day was to go to the recording studio. We would record really late at night, which, in a way, was sort of cool because it's so quiet and dark, and the house was in the Hollywood Hills, and there was a great view. I didn't really know what I was doing, but I had Diane and Trevor to help me, so I could just concentrate on that part of it. We recorded the album while we were filming the movie.
TREVOR HORN: I had to spend quite a lot of time with Piper, recording the bits for [the scene] when she's on the roof and she's just singing. There was a lot of extended music compared to a normal film. I think in the long cut of the film is a scene where she's in the bathroom playing “But I Do I Love You.” [Sings] "I don’t like to,” and she's sitting on the floor in the bathroom. When we recorded that, it was me sitting on the floor in the bathroom [with] Piper…and playing to her. Those are the kind of memories I have whenever I see the film.
DIANE WARREN: I had a different song at the end, originally, in Coyote Ugly. I remember seeing [a preview] and thinking, “Ah, I'm not sure if that song works at the end.” I didn't say anything because I didn't want to knock my own song out. I remember right before the movie was supposed to come out — maybe two months, not even that — and they were saying, “You know, the end song doesn't work, you need to write another song.” I was like, “Oh, sh*t. They saw what I saw.” I don't even remember the name of it.
HORN: Where “[Can’t] Fight the Moonlight” was in the film, it was originally a different song and completely different ending — a song called “Fine Now.” That didn't quite work for the Disney people. Although, I have to say that “[Can’t] Fight the Moonlight” was a way better song than “Fine Now” in every way: melodically, rhythmically, harmonically. It was just a really good song.
NEW SONG, NEW ENDING
Coyote Ugly had all but wrapped when the crew sat down to screen a preview. As it stood, the ending had Violet singing live at a club and finally overcoming her stage fright. She was, as the original song suggested, fine now. But it wasn’t quite enough. Violet needed a stronger conclusion to her journey and the right song to help illustrate it. The crew was also considering having someone else sing over Perabo’s vocals, which they would have LeAnn Rimes do when she came on board. With a looming deadline of three weeks to compose a new song and reshoot the ending, everyone had to get to work — and fast.
HORN: After the preview, Diane came up with “[Can’t] Fight the Moonlight” quite quickly. And then it was all hands to try and make the record as quickly as I could… I had to do a version of “[Can’t] Fight the Moonlight” for the end scene, where [Violet] sings at the club. That was pretty last-minute stuff. I stayed up all night doing that version.
WARREN: I had free rein with it. I wrote the songs I think that [Violet] would sing, you know what I mean? I just started playing those chords and start[ed] singing that chorus. “Try to hide from my kiss,” and I was like, “Ah, that's so simple, but I love it.” It's really cool and it's really evocative, because the moon does kind of symbolize romanticism, doesn't it? The moon's shown up in a lot of my songs. I don't really analyze it. I just started singing it and playing it and it really felt right. Just playing all those chords and the change in keys. I was like, “That's really weird, but I f*cking like that. It's so weird — but does it work?” The key changes [are] the things that don't make sense in that song, but the melody ties it together, I guess.
HORN: When I heard the demo, the first thing I did was call up Diane and say, “Diane, can I have a multitrack for the demo? This is a really good demo. I'll pay your programmer because I might want to use some of it.” Diane was really good, because sometimes people can get cheap with you…And then I had two or three really good musicians, and we put our heads together on it. Diane's one of those songwriters, you know, sometimes you don't have to do that much, if you know what I mean. In terms of arranging the song, the song jumps around between two or three keys in really a clever way. I certainly wasn't going to change that because I think that's part of what made the song really good.
WARREN: There’s a few [key changes] in the verse and in the chorus. If I was a super educated musician, which I'm not, I’d probably be like, “You can't do that, you can't go to that chord, that's not musically correct.” But I don't have those guardrails on me.
LEANN RIMES: I know that they were thinking about someone else singing [Piper’s] part. I think they were going to leave it that way until they had me involved. I remember Trevor having me play around with her voice in the studio, and I'd watch the scene and kind of see: “Can you make it not sound like you? Can you play around and do something different?” So, yeah, it just easily kind of came out. It was fun to play around and not have to sound exactly like myself. I don't think [the decision was made] till I got onboard. I know that they really felt like they had someone that they wanted to switch that out with.
A BIG COYOTE WELCOME TO LEANN RIMES
Rimes had collaborated with Warren before on her Grammy-nominated hit “How Do I Live.” Warren wrote that song, the theme for Bruckheimer’s 1997 thriller Con Air, with Rimes in mind, though the film version was ultimately covered by Trisha Yearwood. Nevertheless, it commenced a working relationship between Rimes and Warren that would continue for years to come, including on Coyote Ugly.
WARREN: She's one of the most underrated singers in music. She's an amazing, amazing vocalist. When you can work with someone on that level of talent, it's like a screenwriter working with an amazing actor, so you know they're going to take what you did and bring that next level to where you didn't even know it could go.
RIMES: I don't remember specifically on [“Can’t Fight the Moonlight”], I don’t know if [Warren] was in the studio very much with me around that time, I think it was a lot of me and Trevor — who I loved working with, he's such a kind man. I remember I would go up to his house in the Hills, and I think it was really just the two of us and I would sing in his little studio. It was very intimate; it wasn't a big production. I know he'd already done all the tracks and everything because of the film, and so, when I stepped in, most of that part was done. They just needed the vocals.
HORN: [LeAnn] sang three takes and I put a vocal together from it, on “[Can’t] Fight the Moonlight,” and she listened to it and said, “Ah, hm, I can see what you mean. Just let me sing it again.” And she sang it again. It was amazing. I said to her, “Where did you learn to sing so well?” I mean, she wasn't even that old, you know? She said, “Well, I was fronting my own band when I was 11.” She remembered everything she'd done on the three takes and she saw the bits that I picked and she did that in the final take and all the stuff that I couldn’t even have dreamed of. She's really good.
PERABO: It wasn't until later that Jerry and David [McNally, the director] came to me and said, “We’re going to have LeAnn dub and do a final scene in the movie” — which, you know, you would think that would be upsetting or disappointing, but what I wanted to be was an actor. I mean, what I still want to be is an actor. I didn't have this dream of becoming a musician. I was playing a songwriter; I wasn't trying to become a songwriter or musician. I wanted the movie to come out great and be a big hit, because that'd give me more chances to act. So, whatever would make that happen — if my song recording wasn't good enough and then the movie’s a flop? Then I'm screwed. If LeAnn records everything and that would make the movie a big fat hit, I get more chances to act. So, I was just happy that Jerry and David were trying to make this movie a big fat hit and if that means LeAnn comes in and dubs my song, cool.
RIMES: I kind of kept [Piper’s] own voice in mind, 'cause she has a really delicate singing voice. I just kind of really wanted to keep her own style and her voice in mind when I was doing it, I just kind of amp it up a little bit. I'm watching the scenes and having to vocally emote in the way that she is, to match what she's doing. It was challenging, definitely, but it was a challenge that was really fun.
HORN: The night that I stayed up doing the [club] scene, Jerry had called me at about midnight: “I’ve heard where you're up to and [the song needs] one more gear change. It's got to go right up.” I was thinking, “How the f*ck am I going to do this?” One of the guys from LeAnn's entourage [showed me] this amazing program on a PC that was a bit like a version of [Garage Band]. It was the first time I've ever seen one. I said to him, “Wow. Could I give you this track? I’ll give you a mix of it and can you add sh*t on and give it back to me?” and he was like, “Yeah!” I was over the moon because it solved my problem for me. I finally got there at 9:30 in the morning and they were all there, Jerry and everybody. And they put it on a big set of speakers on the set, and it sounded great!
At a certain point, I was talking to someone, I think I was talking to Jerry, and I had a pint of water in my hand and I fell fast asleep standing up. I poured the water all down the front of me, and they got me into a limo and sent me home. I'd forgotten I'd been up for, like, 36 hours. I can tell you: I don't do cocaine or anything like that. It was just on coffee, you know? I was exhausted. [Laughs.]
THAT LAST SCENE
The club scene was reshot with Perabo singing along to “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” and an additional, final scene was added to include Rimes in the story — appearing as herself and performing the track on the bar, marking Violet’s big break into the music industry. The combination of the song and the last scene was pivotal in creating a triumphant narrative arc that made the film feel complete. It stood out as a celebratory moment for the cast and crew, too.
PERABO: It was so fun. The girls that worked at the bar — Tyra [Banks] and Izabella [Miko] and Bridget [Moynahan] and Maria [Bello] — we had done all these numbers together and now we got to come back and do one more with a superstar. By the time you get to the end of making Coyote Ugly, you're exhausted. There's been so many super long days and there's all these dances and all these songs. It's a huge undertaking. But when we reshoot that final scene, you're all rested, we hadn't seen each other in a couple months, we’re adding in another girl who's fun and knows what she's doing. Everybody is having a ball.
The real Coyote Ugly in New York City has low ceilings, so you can't really shoot in there. The bar [set] is a little bit based on Hogs and Heifers, that doesn't exist anymore; it looked a lot more like the movie set. But it was cool. It really felt like a bar because it had four walls and everything was real.
RIMES: I was 17. I was super young and here I am, they're throwing me on a bar dancing in these super sexy clothes. I think because I started in the country world at such a young age — I remember wanting to show my midriff because, like, Shania Twain was doing it and all the other girls, and my mom and everybody at the label was like, “No, you could never do that!” So, here I am at 17, about to go on a bar in these sexy clothes, and they are handing me those chicken cutlet things that you put in your bra. That was pretty much my crash course into, like, sex sells. [Laughs.] I remember just kind of going, “How do I put these on?” It was pretty funny.
WARREN: Anytime a song of mine can have impact, I love it. And I love that scene. I mean, I love the whole movie, but I love that scene because it really was that moment, that celebratory moment. I'm very proud of that song. I'm proud of everything I did in that movie.
PERABO: I would always actually sing [“Can’t Fight the Moonlight”]. I'm never lip-synching because then you lose — the breath length isn't right. So, I just sing knowing that we're going to re-record the sound. Because in those bar scenes, there was all kinds of extras and bottles and glass and footsteps, and there's all kinds of things that you're going to have to clean up in the sound anyway. So, I sing out for real, so that my breath is correct, so that when I take a breath, you really see my tummy expand and I [exhale] to the end of my breath.
RIMES: I do [still] have [the outfit]. I think it's actually at the Grammy Museum right now. I haven’t actually tried it on since. I think I’ll fit into it! [Laughs.] One of these days when I get it back, I think that’ll have to be my Halloween costume.
"Everybody wants to dance on a bar. It’s just a fun thing to do." — LeAnn Rimes
A 20-YEAR LEGACY
Rimes released “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” as a single on Aug. 22, 2000. Though it became a huge hit internationally and reached number one in Australia and the UK, it didn’t chart well in the U.S. initially and only peaked at 71. In 2002, the song picked up a second wind and swept the Billboard Hot 100. It sold more than two million copies worldwide. Now, “Can’t Fight the Moonlight” has endured as a hallmark of early aughts pop.
RIMES: I think it was in such an interesting time where the lines weren't as blurred as they are now when it comes to crossover. "How Do I Live" was really the first crossover [for me] from country [into] pop, when I was 14. And then after that, I think that people thought, like, “Oh, you know, she's a country girl that crossed over,” but no one was expecting "Can't Fight the Moonlight" at all. And I don't think Top 40 and radio was really ready to welcome me when we released that. And then it became No. 1 in 11 countries and then I think they kind of had to [re-release it in the U.S.] and it became what it is. And I'm really grateful for that.
WARREN: I remember a promotion person at the time, when it first came out, and she goes, “I can't promote that song. Kids don't know what moonlight is.” That was actually said to me. I was like, “What?” It was one of those things where your mouth drops open. You go, “Are you really that stupid?” And so, they didn't promote it. It only went to No. 15 or something on the [Adult Contemporary] charts, and then, around the world, became No. 1, everywhere. I went to Mike Curb, the owner of Curb Records who had the soundtrack and to who LeAnn Rimes was signed to, and I said, “You've got to re-release the song; it's a proven hit. It was always a hit.” So, they re-released it and then it became the massive hit it is. But it started with a promo person saying that kids don't know what moonlight is. [Laughs.]
RIMES: There was just a lot of joy to that song. There was something that was really relatable, especially after so many women had watched that film, and, you know, everybody wants to dance on a bar. It’s just a fun thing to do. [Laughs.]
PERABO: Part of what I think makes the movie a film that people still like today is that drive for following your dream in the hope that you can work hard enough to make it come true. And I think that's also inherent in the song. The song kind of starts out, like, one person wishing — it's almost like a wish, a little prayer. But then there's this huge burst that comes behind it as the song moves forward. And it's that feeling of being one person and hoping that you can make your dream come true, and then all the force and luck and joy that it takes to make that hope become reality. You could read it like a love song, but you can also read the lyrics like the passion you have for what you want to do with your life.
When we made the movie in ’99 and then it came out in 2000, there was a kind of stiletto feminism that was at the forefront of this discussion at the time. I think you can see those ideas of stiletto feminism in Coyote Ugly. But now that we're at a Me Too, Time's Up, third-wave of feminism, the next wave of feminism, you know, there are problems with the movie; I think we've evolved past some of the ideas in the film about how you're treated at work or how people can talk to women, how we deal with our sexuality. But I think because the movie is really about a young woman with a dream and a female-owned business that helps her, supports her while she tries to achieve that dream, I think that's where the movie is still relevant.
WARREN: Come on, Coyote Ugly 2. Let's do it.