Romeo Candido is finally having his moment — and it only took 20 years of paying his dues, working day jobs to support his creative endeavours, and creating his own opportunities to get here. “This is an interesting year because it’s the first year I’ve entered the Directors Guild [of Canada] and the first year that I’m making a living as a director after doing it for so long as an independent artist,” the Newfoundland-born filmmaker says in our Zoom interview ahead of the 2022 Reel Asian Film Festival. “Now, I’m a professional artist. I feel like I’m graduating and levelling up.”
Serendipitously, Candido has been selected for Reel Asian’s Canadian Spotlight Artist program, which, as the name suggests, celebrates an artist from the Asian-Canadian film community. What’s more, his newest series Topline has been chosen as the festival’s closing night screening.
“I don’t feel in party mode yet,” Candido says, however, when asked how he would be celebrating these achievements. Indeed, on the day of our interview, the filmmaker was in the middle of getting Topline ready for its screening. “We’re collapsing the episodes to make it one film experience,” he explains. “And within that, we’re making it like a live karaoke thing, where the actors will be singing their parts.”
Topline is about Tala (Cyrena Fiel) and her coming of age in the music industry. During the day, Tala is a 16-year-old nursing intern, following in her recently deceased mother’s footsteps (and even working in the same hospital she was employed at). More than anything, however, she wants to be a music star. In fact, on social media, Tala’s alter ego is 18-year-old Illisha, a singer/songwriter living it up just as her latest single “Cotton Candy” goes viral. As a result of this, she is offered the opportunity of a lifetime to work as a topliner for a renowned production team. Topline traces Tala’s journey as she tries to keep her music career a secret, particularly from her disapproving father. Naturally, her two worlds collide, and Tala is left with piecing everything back together.
More than just an homage to topliners — the unsung heroes of the music industry who are responsible for creating the melodies and lyrics for pre-made beats or instrumental tracks — Topline also draws inspiration from and pays respect to Candido’s own musical background.
“In another life, I became an R&B music writer," Candido recalls. "A long time ago, I was writing and making demos for different groups in the Black music space. My mentors are all Black musicians, producers, and songwriters. And then I left and pursued a life of filmmaking and storytelling.”
Candido also cites Wondagurl’s discovery story as inspiration for Topline: “[She was] a producer in Brampton, and she was making beats for people entering beat battles. One of her beats ended up on DJ Khaled’s desk, and then it ended up on Jay-Z’s Magna Carta Holy Grail album.”
As the threads of a music industry narrative came together, Candido turned his attention to “the YA space because those stories, when they hit you as you’re growing out of childhood, are really impactful.” This, combined with a need to articulate his grief over his mother’s passing in 2016, ultimately formed the emotional foundation upon which Topline was built.
“All of these different things," Candido says thoughtfully. "Me needing to express my grief, my life as a songwriter, and me wanting to get into the YA space, [they] converge to tell the story of a young girl who has the ability to write songs for other people, but has a hard time expressing her own song.”
Because Candido and I are both Filipino, it’s easy for us to talk about the cultural specificity he brought to Topline, namely in his portrayal of Tala and her family. You’d be hard-pressed to think of a Canadian TV series that not only has a Filipino protagonist, but also forefronts a Filipino family.
"It's rare to see us being represented, because there hasn't traditionally been a lot of Filipino writers and directors. For a long time, I was it. I was the only one there doing it."
With Topline premiering on CBC Gem earlier this year, it’s nothing short of groundbreaking what Candido has done here, “Like Tala, I want our community to understand what our voice is in telling our story.”
As he looks back on his 20-year journey to today throughout our conversation, it’s evident how hard Candido has had to fight and work, and how much he has had to sacrifice — while working days jobs, he would devote his nights off and vacation time to his creative work — in order to get to where he is today. He hopes it’ll be different for the next Filipino artist.
“I’m going to be announcing, at the closing of Reel Asian and Topline, in my transitioning out of independent [work] and going full DGC, that I’ve created a bursary fund called The Kalabaw Bursary,” reveals Candido. This bursary (named after the Tagalog word for “buffalo”) will be awarded to an emerging filmmaker and include funds for the post-production of their next project: “I want to be able to help that younger version of [me], to help realize their stories and bring more Filipino stories to fruition.”
Topline is now streaming on CBC Gem.