Review | Kenny Burns Documentary “B.U.R.N.S.”

Editor’s Note:  This piece originally appeared July 2010 at

WASHINGTON, DC – Armed with an eye for talent, a smart mouth, and a winning spirit, Kenny Burns has turned himself into a brand.  In addition, he’s turned his life into a documentary film entitled, B.U.R.N.S. (Be Ultimately Realistic and Never Sell Out).

Burns held a screening of the 45-minute biography Monday evening at the E Street Cinema.  Already  receiving some positive attention, B.U.R.N.S. played at this past June’s American Black Film Festival in Miami.  During a candid Q&A that followed the showing, Burns announced that his film has been accepted by the Canadian Black Film Festival, to be held in Toronto.

Directed by Phil “Phil The God” Reid, the opening sequence, set to a French-themed score, follows Kenny on the subway, through an airport terminal and onto a plane before arriving at his destination.  Using a tight p.o.v. shot, the camera trails Burns along this journey.  It’s fitting that the audience is forced to watch HIM, because without a doubt, Kenny Burns is the show.

Making his mark as an Atlanta-based party promoter, Burns broke into the game in the mid ’90’s while a student at Morris Brown College.  Showing a mugshot of himself as an adolescent, the D.C. native said, “I went away to school because I didn’t want to go to jail.”  An arrest during his senior year in high school gave him the motivation to become a master marketer/promoter who caught the attention of music mogul Andre Harrell.  In the film, Burns tells a hilarious story of throwing a party that Harrell attended, where on a tip, Burns supplied enough “champagne and lightskinned girls” for Harrell’s liking.  Harrell was impressed.  He asked who Burns was and what he did.

This is what I do,” said Burns.

With a job offer at Motown Records from Harrell himself, Burns went to New York which began an impressive career in the music industry.  Reid does a thorough job of chronicling Burns’ ascent through the ranks.  Using personal photos and videotaped footage, we see young Kenny on the move, leading his own hip-hop street team.  As triumph turns to tragedy, we’re shown clips from a party with celebrity attendees such as Missy Elliot and Diddy (then known as Puff Daddy), complete with Burns dancing and hosting on the mic. The date in the corner of the grainy video reads: “March 9, 1997.”  A solemn Burns said, “This was the saddest day of my life,” in reference to the murder of Notorious B.I.G. which occurred within minutes following the party.

Burns shares his story – both highs and lows – giving the viewer a complete picture of not only HIS life, but the lives of others who walk a similar path.  Such lows included having his group, the teenage girl quartet DREAM, stolen from his grasp by, as the film alludes, none other than Diddy.

As artists on Bad Boy, DREAM went on to platinum-selling success, while the girls and their families acted as if Kenny never existed.  “This was my first real encounter with racism in the business,” Burns said.

Undeterred, Kenny snagged a position at Roc-A-Fella where he helped promote Jay-Z’s classic album Reasonable Doubt to a gold plaque.  Burns also helped mentor artists such as Kanye West and the Young Guns.

Always looking to diversify, Burns went on to great success as a fashion designer, launching a line of menswear called Ryan Kenny.  Along with Ryan Glover and Derek Dudley, their signature item was the dress shirt, to be worn and popularized by Jay-Z.  Always one to make a splash, Burns accessorized the shirts with white and yellow diamond cuff links and priced them at $7,000.

“We were growing up,” said Burns, and they wanted to create clothes that reflected a change in lifestyle.

That word “lifestyle” speaks volumes when it comes to Burns.  The self-proclaimed Lifestyle Specialist, Burns said that he is in the business of creating “flawless relationships.”  These relationships allow Burns to speak of success in the worlds of fashion, film, as well as music.

Viewers get the sense that the music business has created some of Burn’s greatest moments of success and sadness.  The film details the death of Burns’ friend and colleague, Def Jam Vice President, Shakir Stewart. After Stewart committed suicide in 2008,  Burns said that someone should have noticed Stewart’s pain and stepped in to help him.  Stewart’s death added to Kenny’s growing perspective on the music business – a perspective that, coupled with another key event, would lead to him exiting the industry.

B.U.R.N.S. lets us behind the scenes of the break up of Roc-A-Fella partners Damon Dash and Jay-Z.  Burns said he witnessed several things that signaled the eventual split during his time at the Roc.  “Nothing should have been able to separate them,” said Burns, who has his own ideas on what may have caused the rift.

At this point, the film takes a strange departure, including a segment that gives credence to the “Illuminati” rumors associated with stars such as Jay-Z, Beyonce, and Rhianna.  Against a black screen, we hear some secret societal rhetoric spouted by an anonymous voice.  The audience is left to believe that Jay’s connection to a group of “chosen” individuals is the reason why the friendship and partnership with Dame dissolved.

Conspiracy theories aside, the documentary captured the entity that is Kenny Burns by delving into both the personal and professional.  My favorite parts of the film were the scenes showing Burns and producer Pharrell enjoying the character that was Ol’ Dirty Bastard during a studio session.  “God rest his soul, but he was a touched individual,” recalled Burns.

Another gem was the scene where Kenny stands his ground against a staffer associated with O.D.B.  When the employee aggressively blames Kenny for a poor wardrobe decision regarding the artist, Burns goes off on him.  Burns acknowledges the staffer’s point while warning him,  “I’m a grown-ass man.  Watch your mouth!”  This shows the audience that some of Kenny’s respect in the business was earned – while the rest of it was taken.

Be yourself.  Have passion.  Your dreams are real.  These are the major themes in B.U.R.N.S. Though some of the scenes weren’t cohesive and the editing was choppy by design, it did not detract from the message.  I thought the film was a little short, which left me wanting more.  Maybe that speaks to the fact that Burns, at just 37, still has additional chapters to this story.

When you are your own business, the possibilities never end.

4 Responses to “Review | Kenny Burns Documentary “B.U.R.N.S.””
  1. T. Monet says:

    Great, Great review. Well written!!

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