Art and Pep is a strong love story, a tale of two people who joined together to make a difference in their community, fought against bigotry, adversity and hatred to ease into a life of happily ever after. It’s a documentary that’s a lot like many other documentaries about those fighting for rights at the street level. 

The title subjects are two gay men who own the iconic bar Sidetrack in Chicago. There, they built a place of joy and fun for those who entered, particularly a place for gay people of all types to belong. They were advocates and activists who struggled for acceptance. They advocated for AIDS research and watched friend after friend fall victim to the disease in the 1980s. And through the COVID-19 pandemic, they weathered lockdowns to keep their club afloat. Along the way, they had each other and the unwavering support of their entire community. 

These two men seem to be tremendous people, engaging, fun and full of life. They certainly seem to be beloved by those that call them friends, and their work over the years has undoubtedly created a positive effect for gay rights overall and certainly in Chicago. 

These are explosive elements, harrowing life experiences that deserve a solid treatment and that could paint a powerful picture of their lives and struggles. But somehow this film stays low-key — maybe too low-key. Segments chronicling Art and Pep’s advocacy work are touched upon, but there are perhaps too many nondescript character-driven scenes designed where they are doing innocuous things that drag on a bit too long. 

And there are certainly interesting bits in there. Certainly, their work combating AIDS is important, and a sequence where Art has to handle someone starting trouble in the club leads to harassment from the police and his own arrest for assault. We needed detailed segments like these to show their years-long struggle, rather than additional character moments. 

Also, for a movie about club owners, there could be a little more on the club’s personality, things they hosted throughout the years and more discussion on the cultural impact it had from people in the city.  Art and Pep is a fine look at two influential people who did great things for gay rights during a pivotal time in American history. And yes, it is like many other advocacy documentaries of this type. But for such an extraordinary story, shouldn’t it be more?

Art and Pep will screen during the 31st Heartland International Film Festival at:

  • 3:45 p.m., Friday, Oct. 7, at Living Room Theatres, 745 E. 9th St., Suite 810, in Indianapolis
  • 7:45 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 8, at the Kan-Kan Cinema and Brasserie, 1258 Windsor St., in Indianapolis

Director Mercedes Kane is scheduled to be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A at both screenings.

Art and Pep will also be available to stream online from noon Thursday, Oct. 6 through 11:59 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 16 (all times Eastern) through Heartland’s virtual platform.

Tickets are available at