Filmmaker and composer Romeo Candido saw an opportunity to shine a light on the music industry’s “topliners,” the unsung creative powerhouses responsible for A-list pop stars’ biggest hits. Thus, Topline was born. 

Topline follows 16-year-old Tala, a singer/songwriter who achieves online success as her avatar, Illisha. She gains the attention of producers at The Wave, Toronto’s premier music studio. As she creates catchy tunes for her musical idols, Tala delves deeper into her own story and grapples with the grief of losing her mother. Tala finds success at The Wave, much to her father’s dismay, who wants her to pursue a nursing career.

Topline stars Cyrena Fiel as Tala, Martina Ortiz-Luis as Gabby, Clarence “CJ” Jura as Aidan and Nicco Lorenzo Garcia as Ruben. 

Recently, I had the privilege of chatting with Romeo about the inspiration behind Topline, what audiences can expect, his musical inspirations and what’s on the horizon. 

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This interview is condensed for length and clarity. 

Melody McCune: We at GGA love a good origin story. What’s Romeo Candido’s origin story?

Romeo Candido: I was born in Newfoundland, in the far reaches of Canada, when my parents left the Philippines with an impending dictator coming into the country. I was born in a small village in Newfoundland, and then I grew up in a small, predominantly white hockey town in Ontario. So, I’ve always been a bit of an outsider. Then, I moved into the arts field.

Tala standing in front of "The Wave" sign on Topline by Romeo Candido.

Pictured: Cyrena Fiel as Tala in TOPLINE

MM: Let’s talk about Topline. Can you tell me what it’s about and what inspired you to create it?

RC: Topline is about a young musician discovered online under her avatar of Illisha, which if you break down the word means “illusion,” and she’s invited to join a group of hitmakers for the stars. A topliner writes lyrics, melodies and hooks for a song for those who don’t know. While writing music for recording artists, she starts to discover her story.

Many major pop stars will, whenever they’re recording, invite different writing camps to pitch songs and put forward things that’ll go on the album. The topliners are the people who write the lyrics and tell the story.

It’s a part of the music industry that has never found too much light. I find that topliners are probably the most talented people in the industry. It’s the story of a young Filipina songwriter dealing with her mother’s passing and the grief that comes with it. As she’s navigating the music industry, she’s also navigating how her family must move through the grief and move forward without the family’s matriarch.

MM: Describe this season using three words.

RC: Joyful, emotional and musical.

MM: What can audiences expect from this series?

RC: I think audiences can expect a coming-of-age story about a young woman set against a backdrop of incredible music. If people ask me what style of a musical it is, I would say it’s a musical done in the manner of the Drake-era Toronto. Toronto has become a pacemaker for pop sounds ever since Drake, The Weeknd, Jessie Reyez and Daniel Caesar came into prominence.

It’s a musical because there’s storytelling in the music, and it’s not in the style of the Sondheims and the Lin-Manuel Mirandas, but more of the Hit-Boys, Noah Shebibs and producers making music currently.

MM: That leads to my next question. As a composer, who are your musical inspirations?

RC: As a composer, I prefer Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber to Lin-Manuel Miranda regarding storytelling, choruses and ballads. On the flip side, I like Kanye, Pharrell, Flume and Disclosure — contemporary producers that push boundaries. I’m split between hitmakers and musical theater gods.

Gabby and Tala standing in the living room while having a conversation on Topline by Romeo Candido.

Pictured: Martina Ortiz-Luis as Gabby and Cyrena Fiel as Tala in TOPLINE

MM: Do you have a favorite scene or a highlight from shooting the show?

RC: There’s a scene wherein Tala, our young protagonist, does playback of the song she wrote for Elianna (Ginette Claudette). Elianna starts singing harmonies on top of the piece, and Tala is witnessing a moment of creation when multiple people catch the vibe.

It’s already emotional and where people get goosebumps watching it. When we filmed it in the studio, it was the same thing. It was this feeling that we were capturing something unique and magical. Typically, when on set, I get that tingly feeling.

I know we captured lightning in a bottle, and as we went into post-production and heard what people were responding to, they all got that goosebumps moment. So, we felt like it sets the tone for the series. Here’s a show where music carries more than story or emotion; it carries energy. We nail it and continue to capture that energy throughout the season.

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MM: What do you hope viewers glean from Topline?

RC: At the root of Topline, there’s a story about grief. On the surface, it looks like Topline is a story about a girl pursuing her dreams. But about how we find light in our lives after moving through the darkest period, even though Topline is fun, sometimes funny and colorful with colorful characters.

I hope people find ways of dealing with their traumas through artistic means, whether creating something artistic or connecting with something artistic. Art is a balm, and music is medicine. I hope people come out of Topline seeing how music, art and expression are the healthiest medicines out there.

MM: If you could collaborate with any musical artists for the series, who would you choose?

RC: I’m super blessed with the cast we have. They’re all musical artists in their right, and people I was beyond thrilled to have to sing my music. Should there be a Season 2, I would like to bring in names like Olivia Rodrigo, Pharrell or Don Toliver. If Drake wants to do a cameo, holler, but people of this world are making music relevant today.

Tala wearing a rainbow shirt and sunglasses on Topline by Romeo Candido.

Pictured: Cyrena Fiel as Tala in TOPLINE

MM: Do you have advice for emerging artists looking to break into the industry?

RC: Write what you know. The industry is filled with a million of everything, but for emerging writers, their true wealth is their life experience, point of view and lens through which they see the world.

Every emerging artist has to understand who they are and where they come from, generationally and culturally, and find ways to express who they are, whether through fictionalized characters or characters they create.

MM: What else is on the horizon for you, career-wise?

RC: Quite a bit. I finished co-showrunning the hit dance series The Next Step, Season 8. That’s a globally popular show about dance competitions with a narrative. I directed a sci-fi show for Apple which should be released soon, and  I’m directing a couple of episodes of Workin’ Moms in the summer. We’re looking at what to do for Season 2 of Topline.

MM: Have you binge-watched anything interesting lately?

RC: My binge-watching is a bit shameful. I’ve been working in narrative, so I end up watching stupid sh*t, like The Ultimatum: Marry or Move On and things that altogether remove me from anything where I would need thought. I can watch people being idiots onscreen.

MM: That’s a pretty standard answer to that question.

RC: I’m currently binging the latest season of Atlanta and Tokyo Vice, but I haven’t watched much because I’ve been on set for the last 100 days. My algorithm is ridiculous. It’s Indian street food cookers and people who break down fish fast or basketball memes. It’s nothing to be proud of, for sure.

Aidan, Tala and Sabriel working at The Wave studio on Topline by Romeo Candido.

Pictured (l-r): Clarence “CJ” Jura as Aidan, Cyrena Fiel as Tala and Noah Lamanna as Sabriel in TOPLINE

MM: Name your top five favorite films.

RC: West Side Story (the original). The Sound of Music. Those are up there. Star Wars, The Godfather and I’ll throw in In the Mood for Love for AAPI Heritage Month.

MM: Romeo, thank you so much for chatting with me. Congratulations on everything!

RC: Thank you, Melody!

Follow Romeo Candido on Instagram (@romeocandido) and Twitter (@romeocandido). You can stream all 10 episodes of Topline Season 1 on CBC Gem

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