Director Mercedes Kane’s touching and surprisingly expansive feature documentary Art and Pep, which received its world premiere at the 40th anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival, introduces us to two Chicagoans, Art Johnston and José Pepe Peña, who’ve been at the centre of the city’s queer community together for nearly fifty years. Partners in life and in business, they’ve owned and run the popular Boystown’s bar Sidetrack since April 1982. Signless and windowless, the bar first opened with homophobic spray-painted graffiti on the front door that read, ‘fag bar’. At least its patrons knew where to come. That first night was such a success that Art and Pep had to borrow beer from a neighboring bar after they’d run out.
Over the decades, Sidetrack has thrived and become a vibrant and inclusive LGBTQ+ community space, with its absence deeply felt during the pandemic-induced shutdown of 2020 as the film documents. There may not have been a “sip-in” there like at Julius in 1966, or a riot like at Stonewall in ’69 or the Black Cat Tavern two years before that, but Art and Pep makes a strong case for Sidetrack’s place among the nation’s most significant queer bars; a watering hole that’s helped to sustain the community through its gains and losses and aided with activism fundraising. With Sidetrack, Art and Pep have not only created local jobs, but a sense of family among their many employees, with several contributing interviews throughout the film, including one barman who tearfully recalls the owners offering to adopt him if he couldn’t successfully apply for US citizenship.
With a wealth of archive video footage and photographs (including the bar’s opening night), and stylish comic strip style animated sequences (by Dom Soo, Jackie Chand, and Bobby Sims), Kane engagingly chronicles the entwined narrative of Art and Pep’s love story and the history of Sidetrack. It’s a history that inevitably leads to the height of the AIDS crisis, with countless members of the community and the bar’s staff lost, while Art stood at the forefront of the fight for the city to take action.
Through Art and Pep’s story, Kane traces the history of LGBTQ+ activism in Chicago, including ACT UP, leading to the formation of Equality Illinois, co-founded by Art, and the continuing fight for equal rights for all. Many of the demonstrations in the late 80s and early 90s targeted the city’s then Mayor Richard Daley, who eventually began to listen and take action. One surprising detail is the support that queer activists found among the city’s Catholic nuns. When it comes to documentaries and narrative features, the focus has generally been on ACT UP in New York and Los Angeles, so it is refreshing to see Chicago’s chapter receive attention here, along with recognition for the city’s key activist figures such as Laurie Dittman, Jon-Henri Damski, Rick Garcia, and Danny Sotomayor, who died of AIDS in 1992 aged 33.
As Art and Pep take part in Chicago’s 2020 pride march, they’re moved by its refocused, less corporate, more grassroots and political purpose, and its centering of Black trans lives; reminding them of the AIDS activism that they’d been such a vital part of. Art has clearly been an admired mentor and inspiration to many, including two current Black queer community leaders, State Senator Mike Simmons (Illinois’ first openly LGBTQ+ state senator) and Anna DeShawn, founder of E3 Radio. As we see them interact there’s a sense of the baton being passed on to a new generation.
Always at Art’s side, Pep is the quieter interview subject of the two, but becomes particularly animated when talking about the much-loved Musical Mondays night he created and has VJed at Sidetrack since 1983, which includes the tradition of exuberantly throwing paper napkins in the air. It’s moving to see this couple, often in intimate fly-on-the-wall footage shot by DP Sanghoon Lee, who’ve spent so much of their lives together navigate aging, the prospect of retirement, and the health issues that come along when Art is hospitalized with Covid. It’s also fascinating to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it was like to reopen a bar in 2021 with severe restrictions still in place and their efforts are a testament to the resilience of queer bars across the nation that have managed to operate over the past two years. At its core, Art and Pep is an inspiring reminder of what the LGBTQ+ community can be at its best, and a tribute to the vital role that our cherished bars continue to have at the centre of it.
By James Kleinmann
Art and Pep received its world premiere at the 40th anniversary Outfest Los Angeles LGBTQ+ Film Festival. For updates on further chances to see the film head to the official website, and follow @ArtandPep on Instagram. Next time you’re in the Chicago, why not see what’s going on at Sidetrack?