A visit to the bar at the center of Mercedes Kane’s new documentary Art and Pep reveals how far Chicago’s LGBTQ community has come: Sidetrack’s luxurious, ever-expanding maze of neon lights and HD screens are as much a celebration of the community as they are an inspiring political message to unapologetically take up space.
Likewise, Art and Pep is as much a joyous tribute to LGBTQ+ bar culture as it is a chronicle of the struggle that makes places like Sidetrack both possible and necessary.
Art Johnston and Pepe Peña didn’t come to Northalsted expecting to become bar owners. Instead, we learn, the success of Sidetrack was born out of a love story embedded in the newfound freedoms both Art and Pepe found away from home. Pepe Peña, a Cuban immigrant, started in Chicago’s gay community in the 70’s as a popular bartender. He attracted the attention of Art Johnston, a teacher from New York who moved to Chicago in 1972 to continue his educational pursuit. The two discovered bar culture, and how precious it could be to those marginalized communities who craved a safe haven all their own. When the pair fell fast in love, an opportunity arose that took their lives in an altogether new and exciting trajectory: opening their own bar would allow Art and Pepe to continue celebrating the freedoms they found in Northalsted as well as make a positive impact on their community.
And so in 1982 the first iteration of Sidetrack was born, fueled at first only by raw passion, community, and a few legendary beer runs. Along the way, Pepe Peña found an ingenious way to bring in customers on otherwise slow nights: make it a theme! A humorous moment of tenacity comes from Pepe admitting that once upon a time he knew nothing about showtunes, but quickly had to learn once he realized he’d tapped into something special: that a place dedicated to belting out “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina” to the projected image of Patti LuPone as Eva Peron was sorely needed by Chicago’s gay community. Musical theater came to be a specialty for Sidetrack. In a touching instance later in the film, a friend of the bar is memorialized at Sidetrack to the bittersweet tune of Wicked’s “For Good”.
Art Johnson took a different route in his newfound identity as a bar owner, becoming a leading activist for LGBTQ+ rights in Chicago. The highlight reel of this journey includes his time as a member of the “Gang of Four”– a tenacious Chicago quartet who raised awareness and raised hell, culminating in the passing of a historic ordinance in Chicago prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in 1988.
When we first meet Art and Pepe, however, the hedonism of days past has long drifted from their lives: the couple, now in their 70’s, brush their teeth next to each other and get up early to make omelets.
In the way Art and Pepe’s interests diverge, with Art the activist and Pepe the video bar innovator, we scratch the surface of the longtime couple’s relationship. However, Mercedes Kane’s portrait is content not to dive too deeply into the dynamic of Art and Pepe in favor of a loving tribute. There is a moment towards the end of the film when Art and Pepe are sitting at their dining table, Art on his computer. Pepe, somewhat shyly, brings up the notion of retirement in their near future, to which Art is taken aback, and a decision is not fully agreed upon by the film’s end. Where did that conversation lead? We are immediately curious how the 79-year-old Art, with an illustrious career and various health struggles behind him, could be shocked at the notion of retirement. What is driving him at this point, and how does Pepe feel about it? These, perhaps, are questions better answered in a wholly different film. Art and Pep is not so much interested in probing its central figure’s dynamic but in demonstrating their triumph as important figures in the LGBTQ+ community.
Indeed, the impact of Art and Pepe in Northalsted is felt deeply in Kane’s account. We are taken through the eras in which Sidetrack was a pillar of hope in desperate times, like the AIDS epidemic. A parallel is drawn with our world’s current pandemic, and we glimpse the helplessness felt by the film’s titular couple in having to temporarily shut down their bar. It is a helplessness that comes not only from losing business, but from losing a sense of home-away-from-home that Sidetrack has built. The bar’s general manager has a pivotal moment in the film in which he describes wanting to be a teacher before getting a job as a bartender at Sidetrack. One night, when describing his career goals to a patron, the patron unexpectedly discourages his teaching ambitions and lets him know: “What you do here is important.” He, like many of us watching, did not realize this at first. One thing Art and Pep does most effectively is recontextualize a conventional view of bars simply as venues for drunken partying, casting Sidetrack as a window into a desperately-needed freedom, its bartenders ambassadors of love and acceptance. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows you’re gay.
If Art and Pepe themselves come across a bit too perfect to be wholly enthralled by, the many who sing their praises in the film demonstrate the duo’s far-reaching influence. This many talking heads gushing about Art and Pepe might feel redundant in a different film, but here, we get the sense of how important it is that Sidetrack’s mission has reached people, from those in high political places to those young Midwestern transplants in need of their first tentpole of queer freedom. This is a document of the mark Art and Pepe made, and an argument for the significance of that mark in a world where the first indication Sidetrack existed was through the vandalism of “fag bar” on its entrance.
In one instance, an offscreen interviewer asks Art and Pepe what pride means to them. They answer in unison: “celebration”. Art and Pep takes you through the duo’s storied history, from the pandemics they survived, to the laws that they passed, to the people they brought joy, and it purposely never stops long enough in any one moment in time to dwell. Like the couple’s bar itself, the film is not content to simply make space for itself in a straight world, but is determined to take up that space with joy and love. It’s not just about being here and queer, but being here, queer, and celebrating. Art and Pep aims to capture that celebration and does, and in that, is the best tribute it can be to its subject.
Art and Pep is “set to be released in 2022” according to artandpep.org and is currently screening on the festival circuit. If you live in Chicago, Sidetrack is open every night of the week.
This review is from the 2022 Chicago Film Festival. There is currently no U.S. distribution.