On stage, Ray Charles rocked his body back and forth, jolted by the pleasure of the music he was making, and he'd swivel his head upward as if channeling those jolts straight from heaven. Jamie Foxx, in his brilliant performance in Ray, captures those joyfully severe movements with uncanny spiritual precision, to the point that you forget you're watching an impersonation. Lip-synching to the sexed-up gospel tumult of actual Charles recordings like ''Mess Around'' or ''I Got a Woman,'' Foxx feels his way into every groove and tremor of that voice the sheer locomotive power of it, and the shades of gravelly tenderness, too. As a musical biography, Ray is driven by the primal excitement of rock-and-soul at the moment of its discovery. The songs are staged not as ''classics'' but as spontaneous, thrilling eruptions of sound and temperament that flowed right out of the brusque life force of Charles' personality.
At one point, Ray is on stage with his band and has to fill out 20 minutes of performance time, and he essentially makes up ''What'd I Say'' on the spot. He tosses off that ominous bass line, topped by sparkly piano curlicues, then improvises the outrageously erotic call-and-response with his backup singers, the Raelettes. The music gets everyone so delirious that they're only too happy to moan out the chorus. Even off stage, Ray has a supple musical charm. Foxx plays him with the eager singsong purr of a jazz hipster, yet his slightly hurried, skip-stutter voice, accompanied by a tuck of the head, is an elaborate seduction. He always appears to be posing a question, but by the time he's done he has given you an order without you knowing it. When things don't go his way, the purr turns to a cutting growl. In a hotel room with his chief mistress (Regina King), who has just announced that she's pregnant, Ray tinkles away at a new song ''Hit the Road Jack'' then forces her to sing it. They face each other down in an indelible duet of resentment.
Directed by Taylor Hackford, from a script by Hackford and James L. White, Ray has its pop-Freudian elements, as well as a sprawling episodic structure that's a bit lumpy, notably in the last half hour. The flashbacks to Ray's childhood have the sharecroppers-village-at-Disney World tone of The Color Purple. Yet at the film's center is a man of startling complexity and egocentric magnetism who forged every moment of his destiny, thereby sentencing himself to stand alone. Ray is the rare Hollywood biopic that does justice to the heroism, as well as the demons, of an American genius.
Early on, Ray Charles Robinson, looking stiff and vulnerable, outwits a racist bus driver by claiming that he lost his sight at Omaha Beach. Ray, we learn, actually went blind at 7, the victim of glaucoma treated with an acidic salve. Yet his ability to lie wins us over. Despite his affliction, he sees three steps ahead of everyone else. He has the guts (and ears) to get around without a cane, and he's a master of every popular style, from country to blues to Nat ''King'' Cole. He's also the master of psyching out anyone who thinks they can take advantage of a blind black man.
On the road, Ray insists on being paid in single-dollar bills so that no one can cheat him, and when he begins to headline, and women swoon at his gruffly insinuating sound, he sizes up groupies by rubbing their forearms to figure out if they're fine-boned enough for him. Ray's obsessive shrewdness pays off. He signs a historic deal with Ahmet Ertegun, the visionary mogul of Atlantic Records (played by Curtis Armstrong, drawing on the same geek charisma he showed 20 years ago in Revenge of the Nerds), and he wins the heart of a reverend's daughter, Della Bea (Kerry Washington). For Ray, however, marriage isn't the same thing as settling down. He's got his babes on the road, and also his beloved heroin habit.
King and Washington bring stirring fury and devotion, respectively, to the women who adored Ray but couldn't own him. Ray's tragic flaw is the flip side of his most admirable quality: As a musician and a man, he's wired not to compromise his will. Other artist biopics, like Lady Sings the Blues, have dealt with infidelity and smack addiction, yet there's a tonic levelheadedness to Ray's vision of a pop star's temptations. It portrays them without apology, as the expression of a man who achieved what he did by doing what he desired at every turn, letting no one not even those he loved stand in the way of his appetite for life. That appetite finally threatened to consume him, yet it was also the fuel for music that remade the world. The savvy beauty of Ray is that it never pretends you could have had one without the other.